Genes Load the Gun, the Environment Pulls the Trigger: Obesity among Children and Adolescents in U.S. Schools

By Reid, Evelyn M. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Genes Load the Gun, the Environment Pulls the Trigger: Obesity among Children and Adolescents in U.S. Schools


Reid, Evelyn M., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


"When the world was a simpler place, the rich were fat, the poor were thin, and right-thinking people worried about how to feed the hungry. Now the rich are thin, the poor are fat, and right-thinking people are worrying about obesity.--The Economist, December 13, 2000

This old world isn't getting any bigger, but we are. We are getting heavier and wider; we drive bigger vehicles, live in larger homes, order "super-sized" sandwiches, desserts, and drinks. In fact, our super-sized appetite is taking a huge bite out of health budgets worldwide.

In 1998 the World Health Organization designated obesity as a global health concern. Today, 27% of American adults are obese and 34% are overweight. Research also documents the disturbing prevalence of overweight children in the United States of America.

Federal government data from 1999 to 2000 showed the percentage of overweight children between the ages of 6-11 years old jumped to 15.3% from 11.3% in just one year. Similarly, the percentage of overweight adolescents between the ages of 12-19 years old jumped to 15.5% from 10.5% in the same period.

Overweight youth are also at increased risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, orthopedic conditions, and respiratory problems. More worrisome, overweight American adolescents are 70%-80% more likely to become obese adults, and obese young adults die 5 to 20 years sooner than ideal weight people.

This sobering statistical portrait suggests that America's current political leaders are waging the wrong war, in the wrong place to save the wrong people. The next U.S. president and the new Congress should declare war on obesity to save lives on American soil--not to mention the billions of dollars saved in related health costs.

But we do not need to wait for the curtain to fall on the current defrocked American administration before we explore the dynamics of the weight gain epidemic in the U.S., especially among children and adolescents. Existing research warns us against pinning the blame on a single culprit--i.e., McDonalds' fries or Apple's ipods.

For instance, to what extent is the predisposition for weight gain passed from one generation to the next through family genes? What part of the overweight trend is fueled by poor food choices made by parents, school officials or other caregivers? And what is the impact of inadequate funding by the State for school-based health programs that target the early formative years?

In effect, which environmental conditions can act as "triggers" for super-sized adults, families and children?

The purpose of this paper is to examine the environmental triggers for excessive weight gain in school-age children and adolescents. The writer frames the argument with the aid of an urban metaphor--"genes load the gun; the environment pulls the trigger". The writer will also provide an overview of the health literature for causes and possible intervention strategies aimed at curbing youth overweight and obesity in the United States. Furthermore, the investigator will also discuss "emerging issues" related to the impact of the obesity crisis on young people, issues such as crime and public safety, bullying, and "screen time". The researcher will highlight the response of lawmakers to the health and fiscal impact of childhood obesity. Finally, the writer will offer recommendations for creating and sustaining school-based partnerships and programs.

Constructing an Urban Metaphor for the Youth Obesity Crisis

Even if genetic research has failed to document a direct correspondence between family genes and obesity, we still know children do inherit predispositions to many health issues through their genes. Consequently, the propensity is relatively high that a segment of American youth will become easy prey for environmental forces capable of pulling the trigger on latent weight challenges. To this end, many health researchers (P. …

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