Published in The Toronto Star, March, 2010.
Take a look at your child. Now go back and take another long, hard look.
There’s a serious culture of denial among today’s parents, experts warn, and it’s sabotaging the future of our kids.
A slew of studies have found that parents are failing to recognize when their children are overweight or obese, often underestimating their weight.
It’s a huge disconnect, pediatric experts say, and one that could be contributing to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
And for many parents, the root of the problem can be found in their own personal history of denial.
In a study out of the Netherlands published earlier this year, half of the mothers who participated thought their obese children, ages 4 and 5, were of normal weight, as did 39 per cent of the fathers. More than 800 parents of 439 children took part. But researchers also found that parents of overweight and obese children were significantly heavier than parents of normal weight children.
In another study that looked at research out of the UK, Australia, Italy and the U.S., researchers found that the inability to recognize their child’s risk for obesity was also most notably pronounced if the parents themselves were overweight.
It’s a trend pediatrician Dr. John Philpott of Toronto East General Hospital’s Healthy Lifestyle Clinic — a treatment centre for obese children — has noticed as well when evaluating intake questionnaires, where parents identify the family members with weight issues.
“It’s quite interesting. What seems to be self-evident at the appointment is not seen on the questionnaire,” Philpott said. “Many parents might not recognize that there’s a weight issue with another sibling or themselves as well.”
Nicholas, however, is not one of those parents. As a formerly overweight teen himself, the Toronto dad — who asked not to be identified to protect his son — began to notice that the extra pounds Trevor, then 12, was carrying was beginning to impact his development. He had issues with self-esteem, was pulling away from the family, had trouble interacting with peers his own age, and was a reclusive homebody — all patterns of behaviour the father went through himself when he was young.
“When I was growing up I ostracized myself and stayed at home most of the time,” Nicholas said. “So when I noticed the same things happening to him, it raised a lot of red flags.”
Another recent study out of Tennessee found that this denial can be so deep it borders on the delusional. Researchers found that while 87 per cent of the children involved in the study were obese and had Type 2 diabetes, only 41 per cent of parents and 35 per cent of children reported themselves as “very overweight.” The study surveyed 104 children.
Authors pointed out that if parents in this group don’t recognize the problem — even after presumably being educated about exercise and nutrition in Type 2 diabetes — treating obesity in the general population could be a bigger challenge than expected.
But parents aren’t the only ones to blame for this inability to accurately gauge weight. It also stems from a collective mindset that indulges chubby cheeks and Michelin baby rolls with squeals of delight and a few pincer fingers. “The chubbier the better,” adults say with approval to parents of roly-poly babies and tots. Similarly, if concern is expressed over a child’s weight, it’s not unknown for adults to blithely dismiss excess weight as “baby fat” or that they’ll simply “grow out of it” because they’re going through a growth spurt.
“I don’t think it’s a good excuse,” Philpott said. “I remind parents that the older the children get, the longer they’re carrying the weight, making it more they’ll carry it over into adulthood when it become really tough...the earlier you tackle the problem, the better.”
For instance, some studies have shown that a person’s regulatory thermostat is set during infancy.
“If you’re being overfed early in life, it can be associated with a person seeking increased calories as they age, Philpott said.
According to Invest in Kids, a national charity that focuses on support programs for parents, fostering healthy eating patterns can begin as early as infancy.
Parents have lost the ability to recognize feeding cues which can lead to overfeeding, said Karon Foster, director of The Parenting Partnership program.
“Infants know when they’re full and will give you the cues,” Foster said. “They’ll stop feeding, turn their head away when moms offer the breast, or push the food out with their tongues. We teach parents to understand the signs.”
Similarly, when the child grows older, listen to the cues they’re giving you, she said.
“If they say they’re full, respect that.”
Parenting expert and TV host of The Parenting Show Alyson Schafer, agrees. Forcing children to finish their plates — even when it’s vegetables — strips kids of a basic, physiological instinct of knowing when they’re full and their tummies satiated, which can lead to overeating, she said.
“When I tell them to finish their plate, I’m saying don’t listen to your own body, let an adult make that decision for you.”
At its core is a deeper problem, she added: Over-parenting. It’s a mindset that robs children of their independence and extends parental control beyond what it should be naturally.
“Parents today have a phenomenal lack of faith in children,” she said. “We infantilize children and assume they’re incapable of managing on their own. It’s important to step back...and look for windows of opportunity where the child can manage on their own.”
If a tot picks up the spoon, for instance, “stop playing helicopter” and let them feed themselves.
Foster also reminds parents who worry about undernourishing their kids that growth spurts happen at different stages in life. Babies feed frequently because they have tiny stomachs and triple their birth weight in the first year of life. Toddlers don’t have the same requirements, she said.
Another common refrain that tries to guilt children into finishing their plate is the old adage that “children in Africa are starving.” Teaching children to value food and not waste is especially common among immigrant parents who come from countries where food was scarce. But Foster said this dilemma can easily be solved by following the suggested serving sizes for children at EatRight Ontario, a provincial program headed by registered dietitians.
One serving size is equal to half a cup of fresh, frozen or canned vegetables. Kids 4 to 8 should get five servings a day.
“You won’t waste food if you put the right amount of food on the plate.”
Be a good role model as well, she said, as children learn by observing, Foster said.
“As parents, we have to think about our own behaviour.”
Fostering a healthy relationship with food in children can also be achieved by watching your own language and attitude with food as an adult, added Sara Dimerman, a parenting educator, author and therapist in Thornhill.
Refrain from calling fast food a “treat” for instance, which makes it more desirable. Likewise, don’t offer it as a reward for positive behaviour or equate food with love or comfort, she said.
“If your child has hurt himself and you give them ice cream to make them feel better, you’re equating it with comfort and love, which teaches them to become emotional eaters.”
Food manufacturers are also maximizing the modern family structure of two working parents by making ready-made, processed foods convenient dinner options for hungry children — a lazy fallback.
“When kids have quality meals at home, they usually have less problems than kids who are left to their own devices,” Philpott said.
The best way to know whether or not your child is overweight or obese, Philpott added, is to get a good primary-care physician and schedule regular check-ups.
Meanwhile, though the pendulum towards skinny has swung back to embrace real, plus-size women, instilling a false sense of confidence in an obese child and misleading them with praise is a colossal disservice to their health, and irresponsible parenting, experts say.
For Nicholas, coddling his son’s weight problem was never an option.
So he enrolled Trevor in a summer boot camp for kids, PulsePlus, held in the studios of Vital Steps in north Toronto which exposes kids to a variety of activities and teaches healthy eating.
In three months, Trevor lost 15 pounds and gained a noticeably changed attitude, Nicholas said. The 13-year-old is now on his school’s football team, is happier and more outgoing. Three times a week, the family goes for half-hour walks and father and son bond over basketball sessions at the local gym. Nicholas has also lost 10 pounds.
“As parents, we tend to say it’s ok that he’ll grow out of the weight,” he said. “But that’s a big mistake.”
EatRight Ontario, a provincial nutrition program led by registered dietitians, offers some helpful tips on how to get your kids to eat their vegetables.
-Have fun with food by involving the children
-Serve food family style so kids can help themselves
-Introduce a new vegetable or fruit with a familiar one — and keep trying.
-Practice what your preach
-Change things up and keep food interesting