Done with Childhood Obesity

I am tired of hearing about childhood obesity. I’ve read the statistics. I know it’s a problem. But I’m also sort of over the guilt trip and the fear-mongering.

My own kids are not obese. They tend to hover somewhere around the 20th percentile on the growth charts when it comes to their weight. They have skinny legs and knobby knees. Try as I might to feed them, they eat less than I think they should. All the same they seem healthy. Kids can be like that, so I don’t sweat it. I know that if they’re really hungry, they’ll eat, and I don’t want to make food a battleground.

What if my kids weren’t so skinny, though? What then? There’s no shortage of articles rushing to blame parents for having overweight kids. Some of them are based on scientific studies. Some of them point the finger at what we pack in their lunchboxes. Some even suggest that parents of obese children should lose custody. And what does all this finger-pointing accomplish? I honestly don’t know.

If our kids are facing health issues, of course we should know. But why the rush to blame parents? In the 1950s we blamed autism on “refrigerator mothers”. It’s an extreme example of an all-too-typical response. The idea that we’re responsible for every aspect of our children’s development is deeply ingrained, and extends far beyond obesity and autism. Does your baby wake often? You’ve created bad sleep habits. Breastfeeding didn’t work out? You didn’t try hard enough. Does your child have a hard time paying attention in class? It’s probably ADHD caused by vaccine injury. But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t drug your child, you bad parent.

We’re constantly being told all about everything we’re doing wrong. Or could be doing wrong. Or probably did wrong in the past, without realizing it, which may lead to some unspecified future disaster. When I get press releases urging me to watch TV shows about childhood obesity, or accusations that allowing my three-year-old to ride in a stroller is contributing to childhood obesity, or yet another sheet full of handy tips for avoiding childhood obesity, it feels like the same sort of thing. We’re doing everything wrong wrong wrong. We’re at fault. We should be scared, and we should also feel guilty.

If childhood obesity is a medical issue, then why don’t we treat it that way? You’d never see fliers on telephone poles advertising classes to help your children avoid asthma or tooth decay. But I regularly see the specter of childhood obesity pulled out in order to promote sporting activities and exercise classes for kids. And how much would those classes really do, anyway? We know that kids need to eat healthy food and get moving, but they need a whole lot more than an hour each week. There’s no weekly class, quick fix or tip sheet that can solve a complex social issue like obesity. When we use childhood obesity as a marketing tool we suggest otherwise, and I don’t think that helps anyone.

I hope that we’re able to make some changes, as a society, that help us all to live longer, healthier lives. I don’t believe that health is all about the number on the scale, either. There’s a whole lot more at play, and the truth is we don’t have a good handle on exactly what factors are leading to increases in health issues like heart disease, cancer and childhood obesity. We know about some contributing factors, but we can’t state definitively what causes any of these. So for now, I wish we’d stop pretending like it’s easy and simple. I wish we’d stop laying blame, and start treating childhood obesity in the same way we’d treat any other medical issue – by leaving it between a family and their health care provider.

By all means, eat healthy food. Get out and get active. Raise important issues about public policy and the food that you find in school cafeterias and the chemicals we’re exposed to and the fact that fewer and fewer kids have recess. But stop using childhood obesity for marketing purposes, and as a tool to create parental guilt. We have more than enough already, thank you.

What do you think? Are you also tired of hearing about childhood obesity – or do you think we should be hearing more? What do you think is the best way to tackle the issue? I’d love your thoughts.

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    1. My husband and I laugh at these ridiculous so-called studies. The last one I saw connected “spoon feeding” with obesity. Seriously, I was on the floor! If I didn’t “spoon feed” Theo on occasion, he’d disappear. Ridiculous. I trust my own judgement, use common sense, and in a pinch, I go to people I know and trust for advice: the legions of actual parents who’ve gone before.
      harriet Fancott’s last post … Smile, you’re at the dentist.My Profile

    2. While I agree, blame is not the answer, obesity, is a symptom of a bigger social problem (as you said). Obesity is symptomatic of many other health problems, too. So I understand the goal of wanting people to be a healthier weight (note: though i and my kids are thin, I know this isn’t like the “ultimate goal”, so at the same time as I encourage messages of good health, I cringe at commercials/ads showing ONLY super-thin people – not everyone has that body, nor should they!), but it needs to happen in a positive, ever-changing, natural way, not through DO THIS OR ELSE messages.

      I think the main issue is this: People work indoors, in front of computers, sitting. They entertain themselves indoors, sitting. In general, physical work is less desirable, less available, less valued. Machines do much of our physical labor that used to have people outdoors all day – like farming. People are busy, scheduled, and – especially in winter – have so much to do inside, they don’t venture out.

      Case in point: yesterday was a beautiful day here by NJ Winter standards – 60 degrees & sunny. After school, I took my kids on a mile long hike. We saw four people while we were out there for 2 hours. FOUR.

      The town in which we live has a population approaching 50k people. And there were only 7 of us at that park?

      Oftimes we are the ONLY ones walking in our neighborhood. I KNOW there are kids in our neighborhood, we just don’t see them.

      Of course, I type this right now, comfortably settled inside, in front of my computer where I’m looking forward to watching another episode of Dexter tonight, after I spend some evening time working on my blog. ;)

      There’s a balance! I’m not saying technology or indoor time is bad. But I will say that I try to prioritize outside time every day when it’s possible weather-wise. Getting outside, being out & in nature every day – and making THAT the comfortable place – just as comfortable as indoors on the couch – is a goal I have for myself & my kids. It’s grounding, connecting, energizing, and kids are ALLOWED to run around wild, and use their big voices outside!

      As far as obesity – and health in general goes – teaching through example, not shaming or prescribing is the way. If everyone would just get up & out a bit more, that would go a long way towards ensuring EVERYONE is at their healthiest!
      kelly @kellynaturally’s last post … The journey. The tantrum. The reboot.My Profile

    3. I think the focus shouldn’t be on “obesity” so much as it is on “activity and healthy eating” and teaching parents how to make those happen. One thing I see at the farmers market is that many parents don’t know what to do with things outside of their comfort zone – kale is a good example. It’s packed with nutrition, makes awesome chips, etc – but people shy away from it because they don’t know how to make it. The focus should be on positive, solutions based, whole approaches to activity and food. For example, going for a hike isn’t just about being active – it’s about family togetherness and exploring nature etc and can also be a good lesson about foods to eat (and even make) for those activities. I want to see “them” (the experts, the government, whoever) start talking about the positive and stop focusing on the negative.
      Jen’s last post … Goodbye, Maui. You Were Awesome.My Profile

      • Exactly. Everyone can benefit from making positive lifestyle changes, regardless of their current weight (and age). It’s not as if I can feed my skinny kids fast food and keep them inside all day just because they’re not obese.

    4. People are so busy that we no longer make food. With two parents working, cooking is often the first thing to go. It takes time to peel and cook vegetables and other ingredients so we often go for already prepared ingredients. Which contain stuff you wouldn’t add if you were cooking.
      I think that cooking real ingredients into meals is an important part of the change that will lead back to healthier bodies.

    5. In general I’m tired of all te fear mongering and the endless studies that prove this person is a bad parent and so is that one. Ugh. My school has rules in place of what I can send for lunch – not just peanut butter but cookies an treats. I sent my son who isn’t close to overweight with two cookies for a snack and his teacher told him that wasn’t healthy. I know! But geez two cookies in the midst of a whole healthy lunch is ok in my book. This is an area where I’d like the “rest of the world” to step off a little.
      Marilyn’s last post … The Great March Break ReconnectMy Profile

    6. Preach it, sister.

      And now I’ve typed and deleted three different too-long comments, because I’m cranky today and I keep swearing too much or being really pessimistic. So I’m going to leave it there.
      allison’s last post … Mondays on the Margins: Books 2011 part 3 – the ones that Kicked AssMy Profile

    7. I respectfully disagree, in that I consider this a big issue. The thing is, your kids aren’t overweight for a reason, most likely. I think about the number of overweight children I grew up with versus the number now, and it’s staggering. But not surprising, with more and more fake foods popping up and no education about them. The problem is that the media, etc, handles it in the wrong way. They aren’t going to run stories about avoiding foods from THEIR SPONSORS. All of the campaigns are urging kids to get outside and play, but kids don’t want to play when they’re feeling sluggish from fake food. And no amount of playing outside is going to burn off all of that sugar… I saw an ad spot for Pedialyte the other day that was advocating ADDING their drink to an unhealthy meal to give it more nutrition. How much sugar do you suppose is in their drink? And how many parents are really informed enough not to believe the hype? I’m sick of hearing about obesity too – It makes me needlessly anxious and guilty – but it does need to be addressed, in a big way but a DIFFERENT way.

      This is the third time typing this out and it still isn’t exactly right. Hopefully you get my point!
      Janine’s last post … So-called Health Foods actually owned by Bad CorporationsMy Profile

      • I totally get your point – and I think we’re actually saying the same thing.

        I absolutely think we need to take a hard look at food, and the way we approach it. I think we also need to take a look at the way we lock our kids inside the house for long periods of time (and I’m not judging – I totally do this myself). There are a lot of broader societal issues at play, here. What I’m saying is that we should address those, rather than just laying blame for childhood obesity. After all, even my scrawny children could benefit from healthier diets and more time spent being active. I actually like the campaign that’s running in Canada now saying that all kids need 60 minutes of active time every day. Not just obese kids, all kids. It addresses an underlying issue without passing it off as marketing hype or fear-mongering.

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    1. [...] because I saw that it doesn’t have to be this way. We really can do better. Will it cure the dreaded childhood obesity? I don’t know. I doubt it – at least not on its own. But I do know that rushing through [...]

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