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Childhood Obesity in America

Childhood Obesity in America

Biography of an Epidemic

Laura Dawes

ISBN 9780674281448

Publication date: 06/09/2014

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A century ago, a plump child was considered a healthy child. No longer. An overweight child is now known to be at risk for maladies ranging from asthma to cardiovascular disease, and obesity among American children has reached epidemic proportions. Childhood Obesity in America traces the changes in diagnosis and treatment, as well as popular understanding, of the most serious public health problem facing American children today.

Excess weight was once thought to be something children outgrew, or even a safeguard against infectious disease. But by the mid-twentieth century, researchers recognized early obesity as an indicator of lifelong troubles. Debates about its causes and proper treatment multiplied. Over the century, fat children were injected with animal glands, psychoanalyzed, given amphetamines, and sent to fat camp. In recent decades, an emphasis on taking personal responsibility for one’s health, combined with commercial interests, has affected the way the public health establishment has responded to childhood obesity—and the stigma fat children face. At variance with this personal emphasis is the realization that societal factors, including fast food, unsafe neighborhoods, and marketing targeted at children, are strongly implicated in weight gain. Activists and the courts are the most recent players in the obesity epidemic’s biography.

Today, obesity in this age group is seen as a complex condition, with metabolic, endocrine, genetic, psychological, and social elements. Laura Dawes makes a powerful case that understanding the cultural history of a disease is critical to developing effective health policy.


  • The goal of this book is not to offer answers, but to explain how we as a society ended up where we are. There were critical moments in the history of childhood obesity where leaders, whether medical, educational, political or otherwise, could have taken one path or another. Dawes traces the history that led to each crossroad and the implications of the path that our leaders have chosen at each of these crossroads. Given the epidemic levels of obesity in the U.S., the topic has become popular in the media, leading to enormous numbers of articles, books, TV reports, and so on. Many of these accounts come from individuals with a vested interest in swaying readers’ beliefs about the causes of the issue and how to best resolve it. This book offers something different. It places many of the issues that we face as a country into a historical context to help readers understand the current state of childhood obesity. Dawes has done her job very well. The ball is now in our court.

    —Lisa Auster-Gussman, Books & Culture


  • Laura Dawes is a historian of medicine living in Cheshire, England.

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press