Fat is spreading across America like an oil slick. Some tips on what to do about it.
“Daddy, can I have some ice cream please?”
My three-year-old son had eaten all his dinner, carrots and all; he even used the magic word. So what could I say? I opened the freezer door and saw a pint of fudge swirl. Next to it sat a frost-covered carton of mango sorbet. “How about some sorbet?” I asked. Non-fat. Made from fruit. What could be healthier? And Dashiell went for it.
After he was safely in bed that night, I myself hit the fatty ice cream. Hard. Polished off the carton. And I thought to myself, That’s it. That’s the reason why children conquer fat more easily than adults. I can eat whatever I want. Dashiell can only eat what we give him. In a flash I understood what experts had been telling me: Parenting holds more promise than anything else for beating the national obesity epidemic.
Fat is spreading across America like an oil slick. A third of American adults are now so hefty that their health is at risk. For grownups, nothing helps much. Pills, diets, fitness regimes, surgery, and psychotherapy all can pare pounds in the first few months. Then the fat comes back; over five years or more, no approach has kept more than one in twenty adults slim. But children are a different story.
In the past, doctors didn’t worry about pudgy kids. “It’s just baby fat,” they told parents. “He’ll grow out of it.” Sometimes that’s still true. We dressed Dashiell in jump-suits and coveralls for the first two years because his pot belly always poked out of his t-shirts. Then, with no effort by us, he slimmed so much that his pants slip off. If we’d tried to make Dashiell skinny at age two, we might actually have stunted his growth.
Not everyone is so lucky. About a quarter of American children are too fat. Even before they grow up, fat kids run a much higher risk than lean kids of getting cancer and strokes. And a third of these obese children will become obese adults, who die at high rates from heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.
To find out whether a child’s chubbiness is cause for concern, parents should ask their child’s doctor to compare the child’s weight to the weights of other children the same height. Most doctors recommend action for at least the heaviest 5 percent. A variety of other tests can help. Kim and Robyn Kizer of Mountain View, California found out their eight-year-old daughter, Courtney, had a problem when their pediatrician put her on a treadmill. Her heart beat too fast for too long after she ran. Another danger sign: obesity runs in Robyn Kizer’s family.
The doctor’s warning didn’t surprise Courtney. She had struggled without success to fit into skorts — the skirt/shorts combination that’s all the rage at her school. “There are two boys at school named Brian and Kyle,” she says. “They used to say, `Hello, chubby. You’re so fat!’ I wanted to be like normal kids.”
Along with the bad news, the Kizers’ pediatrician gave them the good: Children can slim down much more easily than adults. In a study that started in 1977, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh taught 158 obese families how to firm their flab. Ten years later, they found that a third of the kids in the study had stayed lean, while almost all the parents had fattened up again.
These kids slimmed down using a straight-forward prescription — diet and exercise, says Leonard H. Epstein, Ph.D., who led the Pittsburgh study. New diet pills have gotten a lot of headlines lately, and so has the discovery of genes that control weight. But the new drugs haven’t been tested in children yet. And genes for obesity just make it harder to be thin, not impossible.
“The younger you start, the more successful you can be in keeping weight off,” says Nancy Schonfeld-Warden, M.D., a pediatrician who studies obesity at the University of California at Davis. There are several reasons: Children haven’t had as much time to get into bad habits, so it’s easier for them learn good ones. Also children are growing; many of them don’t need to lose pounds, they only need to maintain their weight while adding inches. Most important, kids don”t have to rely on their own will power.
“Children come with built-in support systems,” says Epstein. “They have parents who can help them.” That doesn’t mean scolding and nagging. Children who feel bad about themselves will only have more trouble taking on the fat demon. “It’s easy to be negative and say, `If you don”t lose weight, you”re going to end up like Uncle Joe,'” says Epstein. “Parents need to be positive and supportive.” Kids follow the examples of their parents and older siblings. So make healthy living a family project: Serve less meat; more fruits, vegetables and grains. Buy skim milk instead of whole, cherries instead of chocolate. Put the TV in the basement. Go for family walks.
Today’s overworked, stressed-out parents don”t always give children the nurturing and direction they need, says Laurel Mellin, M.A., R.D., who trains obesity counselors at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s important for families to get up off the couch and get that walk together. But it may well be that the laughter and closeness is what heals the obesity more than the calories burned.” Some parents leave their kids alone too much with the TV and the refrigerator. Other parents try to compensate for being gone all day by over-indulging when they get home.
With the help of a counselor trained by Mellin, the Kizer family quickly made changes. First, they fired Courtney”s nanny, who used to spend whole afternoons snacking and watching TV. Robyn rearranged her work schedule—she now works early in the morning and late in the evening—so she can meet Courtney when she gets home from school. If Robyn can’t be there, a new, athletic baby sitter fills in. The Kizers also exchanged their stash of Haagen-Dazs for bowls of fresh fruit. They launched into family activities like horseback riding and neighborhood walks. Robyn Kizer joined Weight Watchers. As symbols of the Kizers’ new outlook, two large basketball free-throw games now dominate the living room where Oprah and Oreos once reigned.
Courtney has continued to gain weight, but she’s grown even faster. The sausage arms and dimpled thighs of two years ago have firmed up. At school, Bill and Kyle have quit their teasing. Courtney can keep up with her friends in a sprint. She can keep up in another way, too. “Now I can wear tight dresses,” she says, flushed with pride.#