Parents hold the key to fixing childhood obesity

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 | 4:52 p.m. CST; updated 2:33 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 7, 2011
Katy Steinmetz, shown here when she was in elementary school, battled obesity when she was a child.

There is always a fat kid in those Disney movies that tell the story of an underdog sports team, the ragtag group that, against all odds, eventually beats whatever rich, black-uniform-clad Nordic rival is up against them for the final title. The kid may be a catcher or a goalie, but invariably there is one scene where he finds himself (what luck!) in front of a free buffet and gorges madly for our comic relief. Outside of "The Mighty Ducks," however, child obesity is no laughing matter.

Raising awareness about the problems of child obesity is the motivation behind a $400,000 grant that was recently given to Columbia's Health Environment Policy Initiative, which plans to use the money to organize educational events that encourage children to eat more healthfully. The efforts are noble, but an obese child's diet can improve only if the parents are helping, and their tactics must be much more subtle than the vegetable-themed parade being put on by the people behind the initiative.

Strange or insidious though it may sound, believe me when I tell you that parents must be the salubrious equivalent of ninjas, reforming their children's habits by discreetly making changes to what food is available at home: This advice comes from personal experience. 

When I was in fourth grade, my social studies class learned the tale of the Titanic. I would have been fascinated with the-band-that-just-kept-playing and the heroic Molly Brown if it weren't for one small personal detail: I, weighing in at roughly 140 pounds, was the fat kid in class. Children being children, I was quickly nicknamed after the blasted vessel, and I spent the rest of the year being warned to watch out for icebergs in the hall.

My parents are intelligent people, but they believed my weight issue could solve itself. My father had also been a very chubby child, as was his sister. They spent their youth in the Missouri bootheel, where their peers dubbed them King Fats and Queen Butterball, singing songs about the majesties’ weighty reign while they all rode home from school on the bus.

In the year between middle school and high school, my father (poof!) dropped all the weight, and he assumed that my identical adolescent plight was probably genetic, that I could just naturally overcome it as he did; hence, after trying to force me into better habits and failing, my parents didn't really press the issue if I wanted seconds.

When they had tried to explicitly press the issue, the result was generally a knee-jerk defensive fit on my part. A parent telling an obese kid that he or she is obese will likely do little more than make the child insecure, and we all know what best distracts an obese child from lurking insecurity: cake. I managed to use food to sufficiently distract myself from confronting my physical state for years, and what allowed that was the provision of those unhealthy comfort foods at home.

I didn't lose weight until the social realities of being a fat girl in middle school set in; no one wanted to kiss me and I started crash dieting. That decision in turn set off subsequent years of self-loathing and yo-yoing that might have been avoided.

I would have been better off if my parents had sneakily deprived me of the junk I ate before my pre-teens started. "Sneakily" is the key word here. I never responded to more edification after eight hours of school, and I always revolted when my parents attempted to drastically reform my diet. But I could have gradually drifted toward eating healthy foods if I didn't know it was happening, if I didn't have to feel self-conscious or preached to, if I didn't feel I was making a sacrifice (That did eventually happen, just about 10 years too late).

So parents, tread softly as you replace the potato chips with pretzels, the cake with low-fat pudding, the hamburgers with flank steak. Don’t go overboard, stripping the house of carbohydrates and replacing all in sight with heads of cabbage. There are plenty of middle-ground foods (read: more healthy than pie, less so than green beans) that can improve a diet without requiring revolution, which then inspires rebellion. Silently, gradually and moderately force your child’s habits to change by manipulating what food can be found in the family pantry.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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