In Wake of Vogue Obesity Article, What Should (or Shouldn't) Parents Do About Child Weight Issues?

If I were Dara-Lynn Weiss, hearing that 7-year-old daughter Bea was 16 pounds overweight would scare me into action too. Or so I hope.

Weiss wries in a controversial article appearing in the April issue of Vogue magazine about the strict diet she imposed upon her daughter after a pediatrician said she was clinically obese.

A CDC fact sheet reports that in 2008 roughly one-third of American children and adolescents were either overweight or obese. More troulbing was that between 1980 and 2008 the percentage of obese children and adolescents roughly tripled.

The rate among children aged 6 to 11 grew from 7% to 20%.

The rate among adolescents aged 12 to 18 grew from 5% to 18%.

The report goes on to cite short and long-term consequences of childhood obesity.

Short-term: Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, pre-diabetes, sleep apnea, bone and joint disorders; and psychological issues.

Long-term: Continuation of obesity into adulthood with increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes stroke, osteoarthritis, and various forms of cancer.

I hope that, like Weiss, I would have placed my child on a diet and persevered until they lost the weight. But I also hope that I would not have used belittling, mean-spirited tactics like depriving my child of dinner because she sampled calorie-laden French cuisine at a school function, or felt it appropriate to report my success in the Shape issue of Vogue magazine. 

The article and accompanying photographs sent the message that form is more valuable than substance, that combating obesity is more about being eye candy than being healthy. I would have had more angst over failing to prevent the weight gain in the first place, preferring to keep my personal and family struggles private as I handled them with quiet, sensitive determination.

This Fox News panel discussion between Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast and Dr. Leigh Vinocur of LSU in Shreveport describes some of the issues parents of obese children face in confronting this challenge including making peace with their own eating history and stressing outward appearance as the primary goal. The panelists disputed the severity of Bea's weight issue and questioned the psychological impact of her experience. The slimmer Bea didn't seem that impressed by her accomplishment. She didn't believe she had changed, although the panelists weren't so sure.

It's easy for me to get up on my high horse about this. I'm about as qualified to write about fighting childhood obesity as someone who has never faced an inconvenient pregnancy is to write about abortion. I'm not complaining, I'm really grateful. Our kids were naturally athletic and active; we didn't have to force them outside or feed them perfect diets. But at the same time, while I hope I would have had Ms. Weiss's determination, I also hope I could have supported my child's weight loss efforts without being mean-spirited, belittling, or making the diet as much about the food anxieties of her past as about her child's health. And I hope that I could have found a means of motivation that was more sensitive to my child's desires than to mine. I would want my child to celebrate his or her effort rather than mourn their past, which is apparently how Bea viewed her transformation.

The CDC factsheet outlines a broad strategy for preventing childhood and adolescent obesity, a strategy that envelopes home, school, and community. Dr. Vinocur gives the following advice: "Lead by example, make it fun, and substitute foods when they least suspect (for example, substitute white whole wheat bread for white bread)." This is great advice, and I could add more. But even the healthiest most active parents sometimes inexplicably have to face an overweight or obese child. Should that happen, it's time to get over the guilt and feelings of inadequate pareting, address the situation directly, and seek help if needed. Let your child know that they are not their weight, that they are people of value regardless of appearance, and find some other benefit to weight loss with which they can identify, such as not running out of breath so easily or running up and down the stairs faster. Make them own their weight loss effort, and perhaps both they and your family will be the stronger.