How Dieting Can Endanger Our Children

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Set a healthy example for your child. Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz/Blend Images/Getty Images

We live in a world of epidemic childhood obesity; a world that we devised, and for which we must take responsibility, both as individuals, and as a culture.  We could fix it, and turn the tide of rampant obesity in children and adults alike. 

But until we do that, this is the world in which we are raising our children, and it is no place for dieting.  Dieting is a quick-fix response to a long-term problem; a failure to reconcile a love of good food with a love of good health; and most importantly, a “go-it-alone” affair.

  Families live together; we often eat together; but in general, we don’t diet together.

We are so accustomed to the idea of going on diets and leaving kids behind that we may be incapable of seeing how flagrantly the proposition is flawed.  So, imagine instead a family in which everyone is hungry, thin as a rail, struggling to get enough to eat, and prone to starvation.  Now imagine that Mom or Dad comes across a quick-fix promise for fixing hunger on daytime television, in a monthly magazine, or on the Web.  And now imagine that this parent “goes on” the program to fix their semi-starvation, while leaving the rest of the family behind.

Such a mother (or father) would be a cultural pariah, clearly.  In fact, the more credible and effective her approach to needed weight gain, the more unconscionable it would be to leave her kids out.  But more than that- she (or he) would be a criminal.  Parents cannot fill their own bellies while allowing their children to starve.

  Such neglect of a child rises distinctly above the threshold of cultural condemnation, and systematic prosecution.

But, of course, we don’t live among families with protuberant ribs for the most part.  There is, alas, still such extreme hunger among the poorest of our sisters and brothers around the globe.

  But more of us are too heavy than too thin.  And here in the U.S., even poverty invites obesity and its consequences, not overt starvation. 

And yet, in this world of epidemic childhood obesity and diabetes, Moms -and to a slightly lesser extent Dads- routinely sign up for go-it-alone diets, and leave the kids behind. We know the demographics of our nation.  We know the approximate rate of dieting.  We know the percentage of households with kids living at home.  We know the prevailing character of dieting.  The math here is rudimentary, and leads inexorably to the conclusion that in millions upon millions of households, parents go on diets by themselves and leave spouse, and more importantly children, to fend for themselves.

It’s criminal to feed yourself and let your child starve not because of any unique moral attribute of starvation, but simply because starvation imperils children.  What matters here is more about ends than means.  Starvation leads to harms, including the possibility of premature death- and so it is bad, because it does bad.

Starving children are endangered children.

The case is just as indisputable that children are endangered by obesity and its metabolic complications.

And so my simple assertion is that the neglect is the same in both cases: feeding yourself as your children starve, or dieting while your children get fat.

If in both cases there is a threat to the health of all members of a household, then the imperatives of basic parental responsibility to protect our children along with ourselves apply equally well to both scenarios. 

Of course, starvation can, in principle, kill a child quickly; diabetes and other chronic diseases come on more slowly to rob years from life, and life from years.  But, in fact, starvation only kills quickly in extreme cases; usually, it, too, exacts a toll measured in years and decades.  It stunts growth, and stalls intellectual development.  Subjecting children to malnutrition is illegal just the same whether it threatens imminent death, or long term harm.

Meanwhile, the ills of obesity seem to be manifesting over ever more compressed timelines, with ever more consequences chronicled among ever younger kids.  So perhaps starvation is generally a slightly faster menace, but not much.  Besides, if we were truly inclined to neglect forces robbing our children of decades of health, just because they come on gradually, it’s hard to understand why we aren’t willing to let our 4-year-olds start smoking.  After all, it wouldn’t kill them…right away.

Starvation is a time-honored nemesis; obesity, a relatively new one.  We have had many generations to align our cultural imperatives with the former; we have not yet done so for the latter.  The go-it-alone diet, in other words, is a cultural anachronism.  It is senseless and obsolete.  We are just waiting to notice, and it’s time we did so.

The multi-billion dollar weight loss industry is overwhelmingly devoted to go-it-alone approaches adopted by parents who are thus invited to neglect the health of their children. We can devise programs that are as much about finding health as losing weight, that are suitable for all members of a household.  It has been done- it just does not yet prevail, because we have not yet renounced the dysfunctional status quo that does.

We can, of course, continue to diet alone- but look around to see what it’s gotten us.  We can only really live it together.  Family is the basic unit of culture.  Family is our unity, and in our unity is our strength.  To say nothing of our responsibility- to one another, and above all, to our children.

Only together can we make sustainable, health-promoting lifestyle change.  Only together can we share the strength born of unity. 

It is time for our culture to wake up, time to condemn the prevailing abdication of parental responsibility on which a ‘diet’ industry fattens itself with profits.  It’s time for our culture to embrace the power that comes with responsible approaches to losing weight and finding health.  It’s time for us to live the benefits of lasting health shared with those we love, and for whom we share responsibility. 

Dieting, in all the misguided, go-it-alone, quick fix, false promise ways we have tended to do it for far too long already- stands in the way.  Dieting, as we have done it, endangers our children.  And so it is that dieting - must die.  In a world of epidemic childhood obesity where our kids often share our need to lose weight and find health, there is no place for it.

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