Stalking the Couch Potato, Part 4

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Here you have the fourth and final excerpt from the sample chapter Elliott Blass, my writing partner, and I sent along with our proposal for a book on childhood obesity. We’re changed our focus and this chapter will change accordingly.  But there’s information here that you may find useful in thinking about what advertisers are doing to a great many children.

In case you missed them, here are the links for Parts 12, and 3.

Health Consequences of TV Advertising

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So far we’ve focused on the way watching TV, especially its commercials for junk food and fast food restaurants, causes children to become overweight and obese. But there are other adverse health affects that can be attributed to the hours children spend in front of the television set.

Diabetes and Related Disorders

First are the obvious ones: it is common knowledge that being overweight is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. How big the risk is related mainly to heredity. An obese child with even one diabetic parent is a sitting duck for the disease; but even without diabetes in the family, a child who is obese is at risk. Diabetes itself brings with it significant risks: high blood pressure, high levels of fat in the blood (cholesterol), heart disease, nerve damage in hands and feet, kidney disease, blindness, and more. It takes years after the onset of diabetes for these things to occur, but one child is too many to have sentenced to a lifetime of illness because of obesity.

One fact makes the picture less grim: A child who is physically fit can escape diabetes and the awful effects of the disease. It is possible to be fat and fit. But the inescapable fact is that the more weight a child is carrying, the less apt the child is to feel like moving. And the less the child moves – walking from the couch to the refrigerator and back again doesn’t count – the more weight the child will be forced to bear. No one would expect a child to carry around ten or twenty pounds of toys or books all day, nor should a child have to carry around that much extra body weight.

Female Hormones for All

Along with childhood obesity comes the risk of additional disease consequences. For example, fat generates estrogens, the female hormones that are also present to a lesser extent in males. Excess fat generates excess estrogenic hormones, both in girls and boys. In girls, extra estrogen can lead to early onset of menstruation. A hundred years ago, the average girl started menstruating at fifteen. Fifty years ago, the average age was about thirteen. Today it is less than ten.

The implications for the individual girl start with an extra and unnecessary physical burden and responsibility. Then there is the danger of premature sexual activity in a society that often seems obsessed with sex. And with sexual activity comes pregnancy. Girls of fourteen and fifteen, too young to have a sense of who they are and what they want out of life, are pushing baby carriages. High schools, and even middle schools, have day care centers so that they babies’ mothers can stay in school. The health risks – to mother and child – of bearing a child in the early or mid teens are enormous.

Add to that the increased cancer risk, given the linkage between the estrogens and breast, cervical, and ovarian cancers. Premature puberty is a risk factor for cancers of the female sex organs. A girl of fifteen shouldn’t need to have a pap smear, but many do. Vaccination for human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cancer of the genitals, is recommended by some pediatricians for girls as they approach the age when they might menstruate. Whether such vaccination is advisable is not under discussion here; what matters is that if no young girl ever contracted HPV, the subject would never come up.

Estrogen is not exclusive to females; boys and men have it too, only in much smaller amounts than girls and women. (The reverse is true of the androgenic hormones, of which the best known is testosterone. Boys and men have more, but girls and women have some.) Just as it does in girls, the fat of obese boys creates estrogens, giving them a greater supply than is healthy. Excess estrogen in boys can cause them to grow breasts, to their everlasting embarrassment in the gym locker room. Even worse, it can cause boys’ genitals to remain small as they go through puberty, representing a serious challenge to their sense of maleness.

Dysfunctional Sleep

Brain activity and the rate of metabolism – the body’s conversion of digested food to energy – are at their lowest during TV viewing sessions. This fact seems to lead to interference with normal sleep-wake cycles. Children who watch excessive amounts of television may have trouble falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning.

Sleep disturbance interferes with sleep’s function of consolidating recently learned material so that it can be stored and retrieved. Sleep deprivation also reduces the ability to remember things and perform tasks involving reasoning. Sleep deprivation is one of the cruelest tortures known to humankind. Many children experience it without realizing so; they only know they feel sluggish and lack enthusiasm for anything.

The major portion of human growth hormone is secreted in the first few hours of deep sleep. Where sleep is shallow or disturbed, insufficient growth hormone is available to provide children with normal growth and muscle development. Growth hormone is necessary even in older children and adults; it repairs the microscopic muscle tears that occur naturally during any form of physical activity. Growth hormone also carries off the lactic acid that muscles produce when they work hard. So dysfunctional sleep can lead to sore, achy muscles.

Good sleep hygiene is essential to normal growth and learning. Children should go to sleep at the same time each night, and have lights out for eight to ten hours. Excessive TV watching especially unsupervised in their own rooms makes this healthful behavior unlikely.

The Perils of Inactivity

Couch potatoes are penalized in yet another way. They have traded in active legs and bodies for passive eyes. Gross inactivity at home is compounded in schools where physical education programs have been eliminated nationally on a large scale. Unfortunately, this sedentary lifestyle is the perfect complement for the malnourished obese child. Excess weight remains and muscle mass is diminished; bones become increasingly weakened just at the time they are supposed to be growing in size and strength.

Obesity and Malnutrition

Paradoxical though it may seem, obesity and malnutrition are not opposites. In fact, many, if not most, obese children are malnourished – the food they eat is not serving them well. There is a significant difference between being malnourished and being undernourished, although those who are undernourished are almost certainly malnourished as well.

Children who are undernourished are not getting enough to eat. They do not take in enough calories to provide them with the energy they need to sustain physical and mental activity at healthy levels. They are also apt to be subject to the same nutritional deficiencies as those who get plenty of the wrong food. Children who are obese and malnourished get enough energy, but from the wrong kinds of foods – foods that lack nutritional value and that therefore keep them from converting what they eat into what they need for good health. They, too, are apt to be unable to convert calories into energy their bodies can use. Instead, because of a metabolic malfunction that may have caused them to be overweight in the first place, or may have developed as a result of overeating sweets and starches, much of the energy they take in is converted to fat.

All babies – all mammals, actually – are born with a built-in wisdom concerning two basic needs: energy and fluids. From birth, they experience hunger and thirst and have the means to express the need for food and water. The instinct for self-preservation – the desire to stay alive – makes babies cry to get these needs met. Babies cry for other reasons, too, but those who take care of them learn quickly to distinguish among various cries and to provide food and fluids when they hear that hunger cry — presented ideally, as breast milk for the first months of life, or even years, depending on what the caregiver’s culture considers appropriate.

As long as the supply of breast milk is sufficient, babies do not develop nutritional deficiencies – if deficiencies arise, they will affect the woman who provides the breast milk, not the child who consumes it. But once the child is weaned, deficiencies are possible if care is not taken to provide a healthful selection of foods providing the substances necessary for proper growth and development.

Stalking the Couch Potato

Corporate advertisers are stalking children when they watch TV in their bedrooms, when they ride the school bus, and even when they are in school. The result is a measurable deterioration on the health and well being of a majority of children in the United States. How many parents would allow an adult to stalk their child the way advertisers do?

Just as Neighborhood Watch programs have cut down on the harm individual adults have done to individual children, community action can reduce the harm large business organizations do to masses of children. Later chapters in this book will point the way.

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