For any good parent, there is nothing more important than the health, safety and wellbeing of their child or children. And of course, parents also want to see their children happy and enjoying life. Sometimes, a parent’s desire to create and preserve happiness in their children can cause them to unknowingly make mistakes that jeopardize their children’s health.
Nowhere is this more prevalent in modern society than in the childhood obesity epidemic that has been sweeping Britain and the wider western world for decades. Last year it was reported that figures from the UK National Health Service showed that almost 10% of four-to-five year old children in primary reception classes in England could be classified as obese, with the number rising to 20% among ten-to-eleven year olds in their final year of primary school.
The main causes of the gradual rise in childhood obesity in Britain and other places are threefold:
- The huge abundance in our shops and supermarkets of cheap junk food loaded with sugar and convenient fast-food that’s high in saturated fat.
- The popularity of forms of entertainment such as television, video games and cell phone apps that are enjoyed while sitting dormant and do not involve any physical activity.
- The failures of many parents to take corrective action when their children start to gain unhealthy amounts of weight.
The third of these causes is the subject of discussion here. Parents must be willing to intervene in their child’s diet and lifestyle as soon as evidence appears that their child’s eating habits are endangering their long-term health.
There are various reasons why otherwise perfectly fit parents will sometimes fail to help their children as they gradually become overweight:
- They think that a little extra fat is fairly standard in growing bodies and don’t foresee a problem – “it’s just puppy fat”
- They don’t think there’s anything dangerous in their children being overweight as long as they appear to be reasonably happy in their lives – “fat and happy”
- They’re afraid that broaching the subject of their child’s weight will hurt their feelings and affect their self-confidence.
- They’re afraid their children will become angry and misbehave in response to being deprived of certain things they like to eat such as sweets and other junk food, or to being told they have to spend less time with their devices and get more exercise.
- They think that their child’s body shape is due to genetic factors and not related in any way to their lifestyle – “a lot of people on my side of the family look like that”.
Regarding the first of these, while it is fairly standard for babies to be born with a little extra weight because their bodies have built up a reserve of fat to help sustain them, it is not natural or healthy for young children to have a noticeable excess of fatty tissue on their bodies. If a small child is overweight, it’s because of their diet.
If you ask a child to stand up straight and raise their arms above their head, their ribs should be clearly visible on the side of their torso. If they are not visible, or are difficult to see, then this should be taken as a warning sign. If a child’s diet is not modified once the first signs of fat appear, then eventually that little bit of “puppy fat” will grow into a significant amount of fat, at which point the little boy or girl is knocking on the door of childhood obesity.
Regarding the second reason, while it’s healthy for parents to teach their children that a person’s inner happiness and emotional wellbeing are more important than what other people think of their physical appearance, a parent should consider their child’s long-term emotional wellbeing as well as their immediate happiness.
A young child or a child in pre-adolescence is less likely to experience any of the negative psychological effects of being overweight or obese than a teenager or a young adult who has to deal with the emotional roller-coaster of puberty and all the insecurities about body image that it usually brings.
Alan Jackson, a national obesity expert and the former managing director of Discovery Learning, described his experiences in dealing with an obese teenage girl:
One 14-year-old girl I work with recently tried to take her life due to her weight. At 152kg (23.9st), Louise is three times as heavy as a normal weight 14-year-old of the same height.
She is confined to her bedroom, living her life through social media channels and pretending to be someone else because she is so ashamed of her body. She is on anti-depressant medication and is waiting for bariatric surgery.
With few friends, constant taunting and ridicule, zero motivation to be successful in a career and a near pathological fear and loathing of boys, she is in a very dark place.
Louise has been overweight from the age of two and the root cause is the same as in pretty much all instances of child obesity that I see: overfeeding by the parents.
I believe if parents could see the distress and abject misery that awaits most obese children when they reach puberty, they would do things differently.
Regarding the third and fourth reasons, it is an unavoidable reality of parenthood that parents will occasionally have to tell their children things that will make them upset or angry. Parents have to realize that whatever unhappiness or anger they inflict on their children in the short term when they impose changes to their children’s diets or tell them they’re too fat, will pale in comparison to the long-term physical and psychological damage that being obese can inflict upon a young person, or indeed any person.
Regarding the fifth reason, blaming genes or physiological family traits for a child’s weight is a common habit among parents who are in denial or who refuse to admit that their own overfeeding of their child has damaged their health.
While it is true that genes increase susceptibility to weight gain, the evidence so far suggests that genetic predisposition is not destiny – many people who carry so-called “obesity genes” do not become overweight. Rather, it seems that eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise may counteract some of the gene-related obesity risk.
If you are a parent, you should monitor your child’s weight as diligently as you would monitor any other aspect of their life, such as their academic performance or their general behaviour, and should signs emerge that indicate your child is gaining unhealthy weight, you need to bring that to the attention of your child and guide them in rectifying the eating habits that are making them fat and starting them on the path to obesity.