One Word to Address Childhood Obesity

Tackle childhood obesity together. Johnnie Davis/Moment/Getty Images

I am asked fairly often how best to “approach” the issue of childhood obesity.  The question is posed by patients in the clinic, on-line, from the microphone during Q&A sessions at conferences, and even by clinical colleagues.  There is good reason for sensitivity on the topic.  There is, I think, a certain wince factor associated with the term “obesity” in the first place, although that may have waned over time as constant exposure has desensitized us.

  And second, any decent adult appreciates the vulnerability of a child.  Confront a delicate issue badly, and delicate feelings can wind up badly hurt.

All of which might suggest the answer is elusive, or subtle, or complicated.  But in fact, I think it is none of the above.  I think it’s accessible, blunt, and simple as can be.  I think the best approach to childhood obesity can be expressed with just one word.  That word is: love.

Generally, the content here will be data driven.  If you return here often, as I hope you will for new and updated information, you will quickly get used to hyperlinks leading to diverse reference material, peer-reviewed research papers in particular.  But this is something of a case apart.  There is certainly relevant literature to cite, but I confess this is more from the heart.  This has as much to do with being a parent as a physician, and more to do with 25 years of interacting with real people in my clinics than reading research data about people I’ve never met.

Love is the right approach. 

Parents of young children are notoriously oblivious to the actual weight status of their children.  Why?  Because acknowledging “obesity” in a child is thought of as a blight on all concerned: the parent’s parenting, the child’s body.  But ignoring a problem never fixes it, and unaddressed, obesity in early childhood portends a diminished life: fewer years of life, less life in years.

  No loving parent wants that.  So the reason to recognize and react to obesity is- love.

There is no blight associated with protecting those we love from anything that can harm them.  There is no shame, blame, guilt, or judgment involved in defending our kids from a threat.  Look for, and react to early hints of childhood obesity for reasons having nothing to do with pride, or shame, or body image; success, or failure.  Replace all that with love.  If you love your children, do all you can to protect them.  We as parents (or grandparents) are not to blame for the fact that we live in a world of dangers that can find our children, rampant obesity and its sequelae among them.  But we are always responsible, with love as our motivation, for doing all we can to protect them.

Similarly, parents of older children are apparently somewhat misguided about the weight status of their children, as the kids are themselves.  Again, this is because weight is encumbered by considerations of success and failure, pride or shame.

  Parents don’t know how to broach the topic with their older, or even adult children. Grandparents don’t know how to broach the topic with their kids, to address concerns about their grandchildren.  Parents don’t know how to tell grandma to stop dishing out junk food.

Love is the answer in every instance.  The loving parent can say to a child of any age: “I love you, and I am concerned that your weight may be affecting your health.  I want you to have the longest, best life possible- because I love you.  How can I help?”

Any parent can say to any grandparent: “I know you love your grandchildren, and I know that treats may seem a good way to show it.  But the best gift we can pass along is vigorous health and vitality; healthy people have more fun!  Please work with me to give this child we love the longest, best life possible.”

And for that matter, any doctor can say to any patient: “My job is to protect your health every way I can.  I am concerned that your weight is a threat to your health, so I would like to discuss it with you- and discuss how we can address it together.  Is that OK?”  If you ask this question, and mean it- I’ve never met the patient who would say “no.”

Finally, we all know the adage: in unity, there is strength.  One of our great blunders in addressing obesity is to isolate ourselves, and one another.  Adults go on “diets” and leave their kids behind.  Parents want guidance to address the obesity in a child, rather than recognizing that families generally find health (and/or lose weight) most effectively together.  A family working together to be healthy for the long run avoids all of the potential stigma and shame of a lone child being “treated” for obesity.  Eating well and being active are good for all concerned, whether there is a need for weight loss, or not.  Commit to health as a family, because no child is an island.  Because in unity, there is strength.  Because you love one another.

The one word defense against blame and shame; stigma and blight; judgment and isolation- is love.  If love is our motivation, and informs our methods- we simply can’t go too far wrong.

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