I swear I dont watch daytime TV talk shows. But while held captive to one in a doctors office, I watched a woman with an overweight son complaining bitterly she just could not get him to lose weight. She, mind you, was the size of a small pachyderm.
I thought of this when I saw the headlines about the study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) that found the rate of obesity among Canadian children had more than doubled between 1981 and 1996.
Not coincidentally, the figures for American children are similar. Childhood obesity here doubled from the 1976-1980 reporting period to the 1988-1994 period.
And as the authors of the CMAJ study noted, the situation has assuredly worsened since then.
Canadian authorities have laid the blame for this on what they call the Game Boy or Nintendo generation. I blame the parents.
First a few facts that are even crueler than I.
About half of obese children 6 years or older are likely to become obese adults, compared with 10 percent of children who are not obese, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Fat adults have a far greater likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and an amazing array of other diseases.
Childhood obesity is also a direct threat. What doctors call type-2 diabetes is more commonly known as "adult-onset" diabetes. But that term has become anachronistic. The number of American children diagnosed with type-2 diabetes has tripled in the past five years.
"Its no longer a cosmetic issue," says Dr. Frank Vinicor, director of the diabetes program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We cant stress that to parents enough."
But what is a parent to do?
First, recognize that theres nothing mysterious about how a person or a population gets fat. Its too many calories in and too few out. You cant keep an eye on everything your child eats, but you can instill good habits and make sure they eat well at home.
Treat TV and video games as you would dessert. No child ever died from being unable to watch Xena: Warrior Princess or playing the Pokeman GameBoy video game—but they may die because of it. One nationwide study of U.S. children and adolescents reported that each additional hour of TV viewing per week increased the risk for obesity by 2 percent.
If you want your kids to have some sedentary fun other than reading, make it a reward for other activities—including physical ones.
Check the menus of their school lunches. The trend is increasingly toward what children want (or think they want) and away from what they need.
Likewise, find out what physical education program the school has. Just as the trend in schools is moving away from the "three Rs" in favor of esoterica, so too has traditional exercise increasingly been replaced with student-chosen activities that burn fewer calories than chewing and popping gum.
Many schools have done away with gym class entirely, claiming that somehow their ever-increasing budgets just dont leave room for such old-fashioned nonsense. Only a fifth of adolescents are taking one or more gym classes a week, according to a recent University of North Carolina study that said gym class cutbacks were partly to blame for the rise in overweight kids.
Get a grip on what that woman on the talk show could not. As with other contagious social problems, such as divorce and unwed pregnancy, obesity is most readily spread to ones children.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported that parental obesity more than doubles the risk of adult obesity among children under 10 years of age. Genetics may play a role in this, but as the studys lead author noted: "Our genes arent changing that fast. Instead, children imitate their parents eating and exercise habits."
One of the Canadian obesity researchers told a reporter that "parents are lousy role models because were all fat and lazy, too." Indeed, last year the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 55 percent of U.S. women and 63 percent of men are overweight or obese. The study also found the obesity rate among adults jumped almost 70 percent just from 1991 to 1998.
Let your children know that fatness is a matter of good health, not of shame. Neither is it a source of pride, as some fat activists, reporters, and advertisers of plus-sized clothing would have us think.
Dont buy into the "fat-but-fit" myth originally promoted by an obese Texan whose sweet Siren song quickly became an anthem for the overweight. A fat person can be fitter than an equally fat person, but studies have shown theres no substitute for dropping excess pounds.
And nix on the nonsense that somehow theres nothing in between obesity and anorexia. A healthy diet and exercise regimen has no place for either of these.
Federal health authorities have done enough handwringing over the childhood obesity problem to start brushfires all over D.C. But dont wait on some government program to save your child. The life you save may be your own childs.
Read Michael Fumentos additional work on obesity.