Writing in the New York Times, author Phyllis W. Goldman said, "Until recently, doctors weren't overly concerned about obese children. But today, the problem is intensifying, experts say."

The reasons? Affluence, electronic gadgets and a sedentary lifestyle.

It all sounds boringly repetitious. You've read it all before, and recently.

Except Goldman wrote this in the Times on April 12, 1964. The electronic gadget in question was the television set. As a prime example, she used an 8-year-old boy in the Bronx identified only as Michael who comes home from school, "flops onto his bed opposite a television set and shouts, 'Food!"'

One can only hope Michael, wherever he is, doesn't give in to similar demands from his own Internet-surfing, cell-phone texting offspring. But then, he may still be too mesmerized by the television to notice — proof that the cycle of indulgence may not be so hard to break.

Last week The Associated Press reported on a study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It found that children are active before they become teenagers, but that the percentage of kids regularly getting two hours or so of exercise per day falls from 90 percent to 3 percent by the time they reach the age of 15.

This, the authors said, raises grave concerns about the risks of health problems later in life. Those problems also sound boringly familiar — heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. They aren't boring, however, when they strike you or someone you love.

One of the benefits of the Information Age is that it allows easy access to electronic databases that bring a measure of perspective to any problem. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that child-obesity levels may be leveling off after steady increases since 1980. From 2003 to 2006, The Associated Press said, the rate of children considered overweight, but not obese, held steady at 32 percent, while about 16 percent were considered obese and 11 percent extremely obese.

Even if the rate of increase has leveled, those figures are alarming. But a brief stroll through history shows that the current generation is hardly the first to be obsessed with weight loss. Attitudes, however, have indeed changed. Today we seem much more concerned about the factors leading to the problem (junk food in school vending machines, too much computer time, the lack of physical education in schools, etc.) rather than the people we might blame.

To get an idea of how attitudes have changed, consider the story the Times published on July 16, 1935. It concerned a female teacher that New York's board of examiners considered "too fat to teach," as the headline put it. The 26-year-old teacher, who apparently had impeccable credentials otherwise, tipped the scales at 180 pounds. The school system said she couldn't weigh any more than 150 for her height, which was not reported, and that normal would be 120.

The board was denying her a license to teach because "Medical experience indicates that markedly ...overweight persons have relatively higher mortality and morbidity rates than persons of normal weight." The examiners worried about creating "a drain on the pension fund."

Imagine that one hitting the news today, and the reactions, not to mention lawsuits, that would come.

Even the 1964 report noted that "very often, the parents of fat children are fat themselves." It also cautioned against parents who dote or who don't let a child make his or her own choices. Too many parents were using food as a reward, it said. And most stories I found, regardless of the era in which they were written, urged parents to find ways to interest their overweight children in sports and other physical activities.

It's clear the strategies, whether to blame parents, schools or electronics, haven't worked. Obesity, in children and adults, is most likely a result of a combination of all of the above, which could be lumped together and described as affluence.

That doesn't mean we should give up the fight, just that we should understand the nature of the war.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]