GENERATION EXTRA LARGE
Rescuing Our Children From the Epidemic of Obesity
By Lisa Tartamella, Elaine Herscher and Chris Woolston
Basic. 255 pp. $25
Winning the War Against Childhood Obesity
By Susan Okie. Joseph Henry. 322 pp. $27.95
You don't have to commission a study to be convinced that American youngsters are fatter than they once were. Just get out your old yearbook -- or better still, one of your parents' yearbooks. Then compare the kids in those photos to those pouring out of schools these days. The once exceptional "chubbies" have been replaced by a small army of overweight youngsters, many of them struggling to do ordinary things -- like climbing on the school bus. The collective weight gain is not just a perception but a statistical reality.
Their excess baggage is not just making their lives socially miserable or simply putting them at risk for future health worries. Some already have high blood pressure. Type 2 diabetes, once called adult-onset diabetes, is increasing rampantly in obese children, say pediatricians. Between 1982 and 1994, a Cincinnati study found a tenfold increase in the disease in children. These youngsters are at risk for heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and amputations in early adulthood. Today's children, experts note grimly, may be the first generation to have shorter life spans than their parents.
What is behind this fat-cell explosion? Two new books, Generation Extra Large and Fed Up!, take on this complex question, looking at it from every angle. They cover remarkably similar ground, in slightly different styles. Generation Extra Large is science-based but uses a zingy prose style to enlighten, alarm and, the authors hope, activate. Fed Up! dwells longer on the science but concludes by offering thoroughly sound and detailed solutions to an exasperating problem. Either (or both) is a must-read for parents whose children are overweight -- or who hope to avoid the problem.
Both include frankly shocking revelations about what and how much children are eating -- a now-reformed Harlandale High School in San Antonio once allowed its students to spend their lunch money on full quarts of ice cream -- and how little they are moving. Both sets of authors optimistically suggest that the fattening of one generation could be reversed in the next.
The problem is actually international. In China the one-child policy has produced a generation of pampered and overstuffed children -- in the cities especially -- affectionately called "the Little Fatties." European children are suffering as well. The obesity rate for boys ages 4 to 11 in the United Kingdom nearly tripled between 1984 and 1994. Roughly 30 percent of 10-year-olds in Munich, Germany, are overweight; in a recent study of French 7-to-9-year-olds, 20 percent were overweight.
But, according to Lisa Tartamella, Elaine Herscher and Chris Woolston, the authors of Generation Extra Large, "In this as in so many global trends, the United States -- the country behind such innovations as chili dogs, cheese-stuffed pizza crusts, and sixty-four-ounce servings of soda -- is leading the way."
While genetics can certainly play a role in who gets fat, says Fed Up!'s author, Susan Okie, a former science writer for The Washington Post, that can't be the whole answer because the shift has taken place far too quickly. The unavoidable conclusion is that childhood obesity is a tragedy -- and tragically unnecessary -- because vulnerable children are being exposed to what Kelly Brownell of Yale University calls a "toxic environment." David L. Katz of the Yale School of Medicine puts it more bluntly: "Children growing up in the United States today will suffer more chronic disease and premature death because of the way they eat and their lack of physical activity than from exposure to tobacco, drugs, and alcohol combined."