Oblivobesity: Can You Kid a Kid?

Boy drinking orange soda
Melissa Lomax Speelman/Moment/Getty Images

Commenting nearly a year ago on the growing body of literature indicating that parents tend to overlook overweight and obesity in their own children, I first came up with the term “oblivobesity” as convenient shorthand for: obliviousness to obesity. The term seems to have stuck, recurring in my own writing both in venues such as this one, and in the peer-reviewed literature.  More meaningfully, others have started to use it, too.

Now that both the New York Times and Parenting have made note of my neologism, it may be here to stay.

I don’t mind if the word sticks with us, but I certainly hope the phenomenon does not. As I noted most recently, I am more interested in getting past obliviousness to fix obesity, in kids and adults alike, than in finding cute new ways to label the impasse. 

While I have ruminated before on the implications and origins of oblivobesity for adults, it occurs to me I have neglected the kids themselves. Are kids suffering the same oblivobesity as their parents? What’s the right response?

The answer to the first question is: yes and no. Some research suggests that a high percentage of kids, boys and girls alike, misperceive their weight to be normal when it is, in fact, high. Other research does indicate that kids who are overweight, particularly boys, may often fail to address it with a weight loss attempt – although that does not necessarily mean they are unaware.

The same study suggests that many kids at a healthy weight, particularly girls, may diet in pursuit of weight loss they don’t need. That tendency goes past obliviousness, clearly, and points ominously in the direction of eating disorders.

But on the other hand, some work, notably that of my colleague Dr. Robert Pretlow, paints a rather different picture.

It may be that kids are generally not just aware of their weight, but painfully so. They may suffer the persecution of peers, compounded both by the neglect of parents prone to wishful thinking, and the inattention of clinicians lacking aptitude for the topic. My own interactions with students at Mindstream Academy indicate much the same.

So, some kids may be genuinely unaware of their weight status. Many more are likely aware, if only because they know whether they like or dislike what they see in the bathroom mirror, but far from clear on how, or with whom, to address the matter constructively.

What, then, are we to do about it?

First, I believe all kids should be taught, both at home and at school, that eating well and being active are essential to good health. This deserves the same attention, in an age of epidemic childhood obesity, that the perils of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco have long received. This attention should be robust, and sustained.

The emphasis should be on health, not weight. We change the oil in our cars not to turn off the indicator light on our dashboard, but because clean oil is vital to the health of our engine. Similarly, weight is just an indicator of health.

The reason to keep weight well controlled is to foster health and vitality. Every child should get that message loud and clear, and again, both from parents and teachers. The famous “fitness versus fatness” debate tends to obscure the prevailing epidemiologic truth: most people who are genuinely fit are not fat, and most people who are genuinely fat are not fit.  This is not a moral judgment, but an established and predictable observation. The things we need to do to be healthy and vital tend to take care of weight control as a by-product. The emphasis for us all should be finding health, rather than losing weight; that much more so for our children.

While much of the relevant response pertains to what adults should be doing for kids, some is really about action by the kids themselves.  Colleagues and I have considerable experience teaching young children the importance of both routine motion, and good dietary choices.  We tend to find that empowered with good information and options, the kids themselves can be powerful agents of change.  The child who used to demand the product with Spongebob on the front of the package often becomes the child who refuses the product because of high-fructose corn syrup listed on the back.  Kids, it turns out, actually are people too- and can be empowered to look out for themselves, and help us do likewise.

With older kids, it can be taken a step further.  They can be taught directly that large corporations are profiting directly at the expense of their health; their righteous indignation can be cultivated, and a rebellion against an exploitative status quo encouraged.  The Truth Campaign famously takes this approach to tobacco, and as we hear more and more often, too much sitting and junk food- are, in essence, the new tobacco.  Kids, stirred up in all the right ways, may be their own solution.

From us parents, our kids need to hear, first and foremost, that we love them.  If we are ever talking about their weight, it must be in that context, a conversation born of love and concern.  Anything that is a threat to the health of my child is my concern; it is my job to defend my child’s best chance at a long, vital life.  There is a limit to how wrong a conversation can ever go when love is its primary motivation.

But maybe it’s not our kids in particular who need a bracing reality check, and maybe it’s not principally about weight, either.  We write and read about this hyperendemic problem, yet are not ourselves overtly outraged that “kid food” is the junkiest of junk food.  We are not clearly appalled that food is engineered to make us fat.  We are not ashamed of a culture that continues to peddle junk foods to kids for breakfast, lunch, and dinner- even as those products propagate calamitous chronic disease risk.

For the most part, I think kids actually know whether or not they are overweight when they look privately in the mirror. I think it’s time for adults, and the culture we’ve created, to look in the mirror, too, and take stock. Predatory profiteering at the expense of our children’s health is a rather ugly reflection. Whether or not we have been kidding our kids, it is high time we stop kidding ourselves.