America and Boys’ Health

by Karla Lester, MD

Yesterday, my son Andrew, who is seven, asked his best friend Charlie, “What’s your lifelong dream, Charlie?”. Charlie said, “To play Minecraft on the iphone.” Andrew replied, “Stu-pid.” “What’s your lifelong dream, Andrew?” Andrew replied, “To play Minecraft in my mind.” Now, get these same two outside and their imaginations run wild. They may be creating an imaginary Minecraft world outside, but they are running around in their own worlds. Transformed.

Andrew is like a magnet for screen time. There are high level negotiations and limit setting strategies (which sometimes include just turning it off and dealing with the fit) when it comes to limiting screen time at our house. I know that my husband and I are not alone.

If you have son, is he a free range kid? When he gets home from school, does he run outside to play with his neighborhood friends? Or does he head straight for the tv, video games and not come up for air until he is pulled like a blood sucking leech from his screen time?

I asked my 13 year-old daughter recently, what she thought middle school boys are influenced by when they are choosing foods, playing video games or playing outside. She said, “First of all, I’m not a boy, so I can’t tell you for sure.” Noted. She went on to say, “They do whatever their friends do. It’s all about friends.”

How has the epidemic of poor nutrition and physical inactivity affected American boys? What obesity risk factors in particular present risks to our boys’ health? What can parents do to keep their boys healthy when everywhere our boys go, the unhealthy choice is the easy choice?

According to the American Heart Association, 33% of boys and 30.4% of girls are overweight or obese in the U.S.. 18.6% of boys and 15% of girls nationwide are obese. The total cost for obesity is $254 billion ($208 billion in lost productivity and $46 billion in direct medical costs).

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act. The legislation was in response to a national security threat. Many American men had been rejected for World War II military service because of diet-related health problems. The National School Lunch Act was established as “a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.” 

Today, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act addresses the same measures, but also is a means to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. A 2012 study titled “Too fat to fight”, by former Pentagon military chiefs, says school junk food and childhood obesity are a national security threat — with more than a quarter of 17- to 24-year-old Americans too heavy to join the military.

Recently, the Boy Scouts of America mandated that no one — adult or child — with a BMI of 40 or above could be accepted into their Jamboree camps.

“This policy is not meant to keep anyone out at all, and it’s just to make sure that they’re safe,” said Deron Smith, public relations director of Boy Scouts of America. “We offer thousands of summer camp experiences that do not have this requirement,” Smith said.

Many experts and parents find this policy controversial and discriminatory. What do you think?


So how did we get here?


o   Increased sugar sweetened beverage consumption

o   Fast food

o   Less family mealtime

o   Increased portion size

o   Increased variety

o   Increased cost of healthy foods

o   Food advertising

Physical Activity:

o   Increased sedentary time opportunities

o   Decreased PE and physical activity in schools

o   No child left outside

o   Unsafe routes to school

Are boys particularly vulnerable to athletes’ endorsement of fast food and sugar sweetened beverages?

Athletes and celebrities have started to come under fire for marketing unhealthy foods to children. In the journal Pediatrics, researchers evaluated the nutritional quality of products endorsed by celebritiesincluding:

  • McDonald’s and Sprite by LeBron James from the NBA.
  • Gatorade and Pepsi-Cola by Peyton Manning from the NFL.
  • Kraft Oreo cookies and Gatorade by tennis player Serena Williams.
  • Gatorade and Tim Hortons by NHL player Sidney Crosby.

Marie Bragg of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in New Haven, Conn., and her co-authors found 79 per cent of the 62 food products in advertisements endorsed by athletes were dense in calories and poor in nutrients. About 93 per cent of the 46 advertised beverages had 100 per cent of their calories from added sugar.

“The promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor products by some of the world’s most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health,” the study’s authors said.

What can you do as a parent?

  • Limit screen time
  • It’s not just their physical health that is at stake. Exposure to violent video games desensitizes children. It normalizes violence. Concentrate on limiting screen time by cutting back by 20 to 50% from where you are currently. Try a screen free day per week. One of the most important changes you can make is to remove the TV from your child’s bedroom. Check out resources from The Center on Media and Child Health’s website:
  • Make lifestyle changes that include the whole family.
  • Expose boys to all sorts of physical activities and facilitate opportunities to make those activities happen as often as possible. Do not make it about weight loss or exercise. Make it about having fun with friends and family.
  • Boys are growing and they need a lot of good food. That means a lot of trips to the grocery store. Take them with you and involve them in planning and cooking family meals.
  • Limit sugar sweetened beverages. That includes pop, juice, and energy drinks. Encourage water and low fat dairy intake. Try to keep sugar sweetened beverages out of your house.
  • Make sure your son is a part of or even leading the charge in goal setting to make healthy behavior changes.

Teach a Kid to Fish envisions “creating community solutions for children’s health”. After making improvements in your own home, you can become a part of “creating community solutions for children’s health”. As a parent, work within your circle of connection to improve the health of your community. That means working with your child’s school wellness committee, child care center, after school program, church, or neighborhood association to promote safe walking and biking to school. Teach a Kid to Fish is stepping up our advocacy efforts. Go to to sign up for our parent and community newsletters.


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