Fat Kids? I Blame the Parents

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the National Post  ·  Overweight and obesity

I swear I don’t watch daytime TV talk shows. But while held captive to one in a doctor’s office, I watched a woman with an overweight son complaining bitterly that 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 boys aged seven to 13 nearly tripled between 1981 and 1996, while among girls of the same age it more than doubled.

Moreover, a co-author of the study, Dr. Mark Tremblay of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy in Fredericton, said that since 1996 the situation has assuredly worsened. Authorities have laid the blame for this on what they call the Game Boy or Nintendo generation. I blame the parents.

Yes, I know how cruel, insensitive, and downright brutish that makes me. To assign blame to a human, rather than a box? But consider this: Who bought that video game set? First a few facts that are even crueller than I.

Studies show that fat children (beyond about the age of two) are far more likely to grow up to be fat adults. Fat adults have a far greater likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and an amazing array of other diseases.

Insurance actuaries have known for more than a century that fat people get sick far more often than thinner ones and on average die a lot earlier. They also saw a connection between being underweight and early death, but this was later realized to be merely an association with disease (usually cancer) that caused the death, rather than lack of poundage itself.

Childhood obesity is also a direct threat. What doctors call type-2 diabetes is more widely known as adult-onset diabetes. But now it’s occurring in children in such epidemic proportions that the common term is becoming anachronistic. But what’s a parent to do?

First, recognize that there’s nothing mysterious about how a person or a population gets fat. It’s too many calories in and too few out. You can’t 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 Captain Planet or play Diablo. But 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 menu of the 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 favour 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 don’t leave room for such old-fashioned nonsense.

"At a time in our history when we need it the most, we’re taking resources away from it," bemoans Mr. Tremblay. 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 one’s children.

The New England Journal of Medicine has 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 study’s lead author pointed out, "Our genes aren’t changing that fast. Instead, children imitate their parents’ eating and exercise habits."

As Mr. Tremblay told a National Post reporter, parents are lousy role models because "we’re all fat and lazy, too. I am generalizing, of course, but the Canadian population is ballooning in terms of obesity." 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. Don’t 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 there’s no substitute for dropping excess pounds.

And nix on the nonsense that somehow there’s nothing in between obesity and anorexia. A healthy diet and exercise regimen has no place for either of these.

The Canadian government has a long-term plan to make people less sedentary. So far, it’s not working. Don’t wait on it to save your child.