Santa Clara University

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Dr. Gregory Baker

Director, Food & Agribusiness Institute

Gregory Baker’s research explores the causes of childhood obesity as perceived by key groups involved in children’s health. A survey of parents, teachers, pediatricians, and dieticians revealed many areas of agreement, but also areas of significant disagreement. There was near unanimous agreement that parents were primarily responsible for ensuring that children develop good eating habits. There was also substantial agreement on the causes of childhood obesity. The top causes tended to fall into two categories: factors related to calorie expenditure (children’s physical activity level and passive entertainment) and calorie consumption (parental role modeling and parental oversight of children’s food choices and eating behavior). Factors such as fast food, school physical education programs, television advertising, and supermarket displays were believed to be much less important.

Regarding strategies for addressing the problem, at least half of the respondents in all four groups thought that mandating school programs was the best option. There was also some agreement that strengthening physical education programs was the best option for schools, although limiting the sales of unhealthy snacks and drinks, increasing nutrition education, and healthy school lunch programs also had the support of many respondents.

There were also several important areas of disagreement in the opinions of the four groups. A key difference regards the seriousness of the childhood obesity problem. Pediatricians and dietitians were clearly more concerned than teachers and parents. A second important difference concerns who should be responsible for addressing the issue. Again, the medical professionals’ responses differ substantially from those of teachers and parents. Teachers and parents overwhelming responded that addressing the problem of childhood obesity in the U.S. is the responsibility of parents. The responses of dietitians and pediatricians were more evenly divided between parents, government, and the medical profession, with some respondents indicating that the responsibility is shared between multiple groups.

The findings of this research have implications for the policy debate that will undoubtedly unfold regarding the problem, causes, and approaches to addressing childhood obesity. The divide between medical professionals and teachers and parents over the seriousness of the childhood obesity problem and the responsibility for addressing the problem will be likely be important in any discussion of policy options aimed at addressing the issue. However, the areas of agreement, including the importance of schools in addressing the problem and the influence of television on children’s food choices and eating behavior point to fruitful areas for achieving consensus.

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