Child obesity: A complex problem with a hazy solution

July 16, 2012, 1:31 p.m.

South Los Angeles has some of the county's highest prevalence rates of obesity, and the path to fixing that isn't easy. (Stan Dalone/Flickr Creative Commons)

The L.A. County Department of Public Health looked at 119 areas of the county when it measured levels of child obesity in 2008 – and South L.A. didn't fare well.

L.A. City Council District 9, which largely overlaps with OnCentral's area of coverage, ranked 105, with a prevalence rate of just under 30 percent. To the west, Council District 8 was one notch worse, with a rate of just north of 30 percent.

To the east, Florence-Graham ranked 110 out of 119 areas, with 31 percent of its children qualifying as obese. And the area with the worst child obesity rate in the county, Walnut Park, is just east of OnCentral's area of coverage; about 39 percent of that area's kids are unhealthily large.

As far as the epidemic's causes – and it is an epidemic – Dr. Marc Weigensberg, a researcher with USC's Child Obesity Research Center and the director of pediatric endocrinology at LAC+USC Medical Center, says that various social determinants intertwine to create one beast of a problem.

"We immediately think of the balance between what kids are eating versus physical activity," he said, citing added sugars and fast food, both of which are commonly-blamed factors in obesity. He also pointed to the fact that schools are cutting physical education programs because of skimpier budgets.

"But beyond that, you've got things like the geography issues," Weigensberg said. "Are there parks for kids to play in, or safe places to play?" In light of daunting crime rates, parents are hesitant to let their kids out to play, and fewer kids are walking to school today than back in the day.

"And then of course you have genetic factors at play, whether obesity tends to run in the family," he said, adding that obesity has also been linked to socioeconomic status. "It's long been known that lower socioeconomic status groups have a higher prevalence of obesity." South L.A. knows about low-income living – after redistricting, Council District 9's median yearly income became $16,000 per household.

When it comes to why this ought to be a concern, the list of negative health outcomes that obesity causes or exacerbates is just as long as the list of social determinants – and just as daunting.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the amount of type 2 diabetes compared to what it used to be," Weigensberg said. "I see a lot more than I ever did when I was in training as a pediatric endocrinologist in the 80s." On top of that, obesity boosts a kid's chance of heart attacks and strokes in the future.

Major obstacles lie in the way of making changes that will put a dent in the problem, though. For one, creating a healthier society is likely to challenge folks who live obesity-friendly lifestyles on a profound level.

"To the extent that some of our unhealthy eating behaviors are entrenched in our social culture, and even reinforced by social culture and government forces – such as the subsidizing of high-fructose corn syrup and soda beverages – they're so entrenched in our environment that these factors are very difficult to change," Weigensberg said, adding that child obesity is a complex problem that will require an equally complex solution.

"It's got such prevalence in our surrounding culture and society that it's very difficult for any one individual to make those changes," he said. "The approach to child obesity really has to be multifaceted. It's not just about individual change – there has to be change from a policy standpoint, a societal standpoint, and a real commitment to changing our environment to making it healthier for kids."

The doctor doesn't sugar-coat the fact that that's a tall order.

"Changing lifestyle is probably one of the most difficult things to do," Weigensberg said. "I think the medical field learned that when it came to something like smoking."

KPCC's Crawford Family Forum is hosting a conversation addressing the issue of child obesity in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 17 at 7 p.m., moderated by OnCentral's José Martinez. Doors open at 6:30 and the event will run until 8. Admission is free but RSVPs are required; you can do that here.

Photo by Stan Dalone via Flickr Creative Commons.

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