Childhood obesity is getting a Shaq attack. In his new reality TV show, Shaq’s Big Challenge, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal sets out to transform six overweight middle school students—ranging in age from 11 to 14 and in weight from 182 to 285 pounds—into fit, active kids. He has his work cut out for him: At the start of the show, half of the kids cannot do even a single sit-up, and one boy talks about topping his cheeseburgers with French fries (yes, inside the bun).
Certainly, kids’ increasingly sedentary lifestyle is a big factor in the obesity epidemic. "We live in a society now where it’s easy to eat a bag of chips and watch TV, easy to eat a bag of chips and play with your PlayStation," says O’Neal. "It’s easy to eat a bag of donuts and just sit down and not do anything."
But part of the problem is that children are eating too many cheeseburgers—with or without the fries—and not enough veggie burgers.
Kids get fat for the same reasons that adults get fat: They eat the wrong foods. On any given day, most Americans don’t eat even two servings of fruit, but we have plenty of room on our plates for meat. Each year, Americans scarf down 600 million Big Macs and 20 billion hot dogs. We eat 127 chickens every single second.
This mountain of meat is making us fat.
Population studies show that meat-eaters have three times the obesity rate of vegetarians and nine times the obesity rate of vegans. It’s possible to be an overweight vegan, of course, but adult vegans are, on average, 10 to 20 pounds lighter than adult meat-eaters.
Here’s another reason for kids to eat their veggies: Children who are raised as vegetarians have a lower risk of the health problems that will plague their meat-eating peers as they grow older. In the last edition of his acclaimed parenting guide, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, the late Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote, "Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer."
If we don’t change our eating habits, we and our kids can expect to keep getting fatter—and sicker. According to a report published last year by the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, if present trends continue, nearly half of the children in North America will be overweight by 2010. Overweight kids tend to become overweight adults, at risk for heart disease, stroke and all the other ailments stemming from extra pounds. Already, pediatricians are reporting an alarming increase in the number of children with type 2 diabetes, a disease that typically affects adults. Eighty-five percent of these cases involve overweight kids.
"This is going to be the first generation that’s going to have a lower life expectancy than their parents," says Dr. Phillip Thomas, a British surgeon who works with obese patients. "It’s like the plague is in town and no one is interested."
Fortunately, that’s not completely true. Shaquille O’Neal is interested and he’s on a quest to "help kids across America live more healthfully" (according to his show’s Web site). But parents can do their part too. Fast-food dinners of chicken nuggets and patty melts might be convenient, but they’re not doing our kids any good. Childhood is the time when eating habits are formed. We need to start teaching kids to make smart eating choices that will serve them throughout their lives.
Paula Moore is a senior writer for the international animal protection organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), based in Norfolk, Virginia; www.GoVeg.com.