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The Obesity Epidemic and The Importance of Home Cooked Family Meals

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity had more than tripled in the past 30 years, now accounting for approximately 17% of the U.S. population.  Childhood obesity and obesity in general is not only a domestic problem.  It has become part of the public health spotlight globally.  The World Health Organization declared childhood obesity as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century”.   Aside from being a cause of several major chronic diseases like heart diseases and diabetes, obesity also has psychological and social effects such as  low self-esteem, bullying and social isolation.  Furthermore, experts believe for the first time in history, this global epidemic will cause the next generation to live shorter lives than their parents.

As the rate of obesity is spreading like wildfire, stakeholders are working diligently to find ways to tame this beast.  Doctors are in search of drugs and surgical procedures to best tackle the problem, obese individuals are after the newest diet fads to get the quickest results, our government is legislating to improve the quality of school meals and mandating fast food restaurants to show nutritional labels http://www.letsmove.gov/, and entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this epidemic by introducing the latest health products and diet programs.  These methods might be effective in remedying the damages already done.   But, are these suitable long term solutions or could they simply be ways to patch the hole?  If the old adage asserts, “prevention is the best medicine”, then why aren't we putting more emphasis on preventing the problem in the first place?  Prevention should start from the home, at the beginning stages of a child's life, not after the child has become overweight or obese with poor eating habits already established.

In the 1970s, the rate of mothers in the workforce was a little over 40 percent and Americans were spending approximately 33 percent of their food expenditures on eating out.  Today, with over 70 percent of mothers in the workforce, the amount of money Americans spend on outside food, particularly fast foods, has increased to nearly 50 percent.   As the frequency of Americans spend on dining out increases, so does the growth rate of obesity.  The correlation between the rate of outside food (especially fast food) consumption and the obesity growth rate is too great for us to ignore.  Furthermore, the USDA confirms the availability of fast foods appears to play a large role in obesity.  

Back in the days when only one parent was in the workforce and structured extracurricular kids’ activities were minimal, most American families were able to enjoy home cooked meals regularly.  Thanks to today's overbooked frantic schedules, gathering at the dinner table seems like a rarity, let alone home cooked meals.  Because of today's overly competitive environment coupled with an overabundance of readily accessible processed packaged and fast foods, most families are spending less time in the kitchen and more time at their favorite fast food joints. 

When I was growing up, as a new immigrant in the United States, home cooked family meals played a very important role in my life.   With my dad working as a chef at a Chinese restaurant in Boston (coming home only twice a month) and my mom working 10 hour days as a seamstress at a garment factory in New York City, family meals were just about the only chance my siblings, my parents and I were able to connect as a family. Breaking bread with my family meant a lot to me.  It gave me a sense of security, comfort, belonging, and hope, growing up in this foreign land.  The regularity of these family meals not only created a stable environment and a tight knit bond with my family, it also provided me with lifelong healthy eating habits.

Although my mother had a very hectic work schedule, working ten hours a day, six (sometimes seven) days a week and at times even brought work home, she still placed preparing and sharing family meals on the very top of her priority list.  Knowing how beneficial family meals have been on my life, I wanted to continue this tradition and foster the same habits and attitude in my son.  Unfortunately, having had several extremely frantic and demanding jobs in the financial industry and attended night school while raising a young child, accomplishing this goal seemed impossible.  Like most working American families, it was difficult enough for us to find time to actually sit down and enjoy a meal together, let alone having the time to prepare the meal.  As I've been so accustomed to enjoying home cooked meals all my life, I refused to let my hectic work schedule rob my son of this entitlement and steer him to a lifestyle of unhealthy packaged and fast foods. 

As my mother has exemplified, it is our responsibility as parents to guide our kids in the direction that will lead them to live healthier and longer lives.  Although it is a lot simpler to take the easier route and ride on the fast food lane, but for the long run this smooth road will get bumpier and our journey to good health will go downhill.  It is imperative that we, as parents allot time each day to prepare and enjoy home cooked meals with our family.  Unlike dinning out, when we prepare the food ourselves we can control the quantity, quality and the type of ingredients we put in them.  While home cooked family meals might not be the solution to the obesity problem, but I trust if more and more families can take part in reviving the lost art of home cooking and cultivate healthy eating habits at the beginning stages of our kids’ lives, the obesity rate shall be reduced and people in America and around the globe will live healthier - physically, emotionally and psychologically.

          References
World Health Organization:
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service: 
Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
Clinton Foundation:
http://www.clintonfoundation.org/what-we-do/alliance-for-a-healthier-generation/

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