Obese Parents, Obese Children = A Big Fat Problem in America

Thank you, dear readers, for the kind comments on yesterday’s post about our sleepless nights and Leone’s biting. Nursing has gone better today. I only offer when I am sure the baby’s hungry so she has no temptation to use my breast as a dog chew toy, and then I remind her to be gentle before she latches on. I think that, combined with the screaming and sobbing (mine) when she does bite me by mistake, is getting the point across.

This baby has yet to start on solid foods of any kind though she’s had a taste here and there. She ate a pea-sized amount of avocado with breast milk (yum) before losing interest the other day and tonight she ate a bit of roasted yam. She’s so funny about food. She grabs at it, puts it in her mouth, gets a very surprised look on her face, and then vigorously pumps her tongue in and out of her mouth to get the strange substance off.

Maybe because Leone is on the cusp of starting solids or maybe because of Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity or maybe because James and I watched Food, Inc. (fun date night movie, not!) recently but obesity is on my mind.

Here are my questions:

Is it child abuse to let your children become obese?

Is it self-abuse to let yourself become so fat you can barely walk?

I can’t stop thinking about this New York Times article about the toll obesity in women is taking on women and their newborns.

The mom profiled in the article, who weighed 261 pounds when she was admitted to the hospital after having a stroke from obesity-related medical problems, mentioned that she was actually the smallest person in her family. Her brother weighed 700 pounds before having surgery.

According to the article, one in five women is obese when she gets pregnant.

Also according to the New York Times, one in three children in America is now considered to be overweight or obese.

How is this possible?

It’s so upsetting how we are harming ourselves and our children with the unhealthy way we eat in America.

Then I get mad. Not at the women who are suffering from obesity or at the children who are so sedentary and such unhealthy eaters that they are obese.

I get mad at an amorphous entity, the food industrial complex—the distributors that supply fatty sugary junky school lunches, the McDonalds and other fast food chains that serve Americans meat from sick and mistreated cows who were literally wallowing in their own feces while alive, and the overly subsidized industrial farmers who have such a stranglehold on what is grown in America that corn syrup solids are among the first ingredients in some baby formulas.

We need to feed our children food.

We need to feed ourselves food.

This seems so basic and obvious but most of the people I know—at least the ones bringing snacks for my son’s kindergarten class—don’t seem to get it. High fructose corn syrup is not food. Red Dye #40 is not food. Refined and processed wheat (aka white flour) also doesn’t count as food in my book. Anything unpronounceable on the label? Chances are it’s not food.

It’s good advice to read ingredient labels but even better advice to stop buying packaged foods as much as possible. (We’re striving to do this in our family though we don’t always succeed.) Instead of something that’s been processed and then wrapped in plastic, buy fresh fruits and vegetables that don’t come in a bag (or better yet pick them straight from your own garden. Mine has failed two years in a row but I’m trying again, damn it), eat nuts and dried fruits and beans and whole grains like brown rice and steel-cut oats (at the Ashland Food Co-op you can buy all of these foods in bulk), local eggs, and free-range, kindly treated meats (if you eat meat).

Oy, such healthy suggestions. I think I’ll go eat a chocolate bar before bed.

What are you feeding your kids? What are you feeding yourself? Do you think childhood obesity is child abuse? Who should we be holding accountable for our nation’s obesity problems?

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19 thoughts on “Obese Parents, Obese Children = A Big Fat Problem in America”

  1. The conquest of America’s diet by processed food is depressing, but the fact that a counter-movement is happening is encouraging. The organic, whole-grain movement has been growing for decades; the farmers’ markets are increasingly popular; and even what used to be the haute-cuisine people has become the foodie culture, which is all about variety and quality ingredients. Who was even thinking about Locavore ten years ago? I’ve been eating organic my whole adult life, and when I heard about locavore three years ago I couldn’t imagine doing it. Real food is coming back–maybe not to the mainstream, at least not now, but it’s growing.

  2. I told my Darling Man the other day to put some budget cookies back on the shelf in the grocery store because they “weren’t made with food” so it is funny to hear you say the exactly the same thing. I don’t eat wheat (ok, MOSTLY) so I don’t eat his cookies, but I’d rather he be eating ones with recognizable ingredients that didn’t come out of a lab. Ugh.
    .-= Frugal Kiwi´s last blog ..Racked with Pleasure =-.

  3. As a plus-sized woman who buys real food, I am glad to see you approach this topic without blaming the women. I firmly believe genetics play a big role in this, as well as the food we eat and the amount of exercise we get. And I am in complete agreement that our stores are filled with things that are not real food and that no one should be eating.

  4. My mother never fed us processed foods. In fact, I remember,vividly, begging her to make us Macaroni & Cheese. ALL the kids were talking about it. She caved one night and we had to eat it with the shades drawn and doors locked. Then she growled, “and don’t tell ANYONE I made that for you.”

    Last year, despite my being nearly underweight and very active lifestyle, I found out I had a cholesterol problem. I was shocked. I went on a heart smart diet and got myself in really good cholesterol shape within a few months. One of the first things to cut was ANYTHING processed. I have always been a “cook” and enjoyed making and eating good foods but now I wasn’t cheating with prepacked rice side dishes etc. When I saw what an amazing difference it made in my own levels I decided to adopt the heart-smart no processed foods across the board and from now on. My kids do get some of the usual kinds of things from time to time (chicken nuggets) but I try to make them myself and they seem to be happy with that.

    Admittedly, it’s not always easy. But we try. And, since Mom & Dad never seem to sit still (Dad’s an Ironman Finisher and has several marathons under his belt), our kids seem to be the active/outdoor type. In fact, this past weekend I was begging them to please just sit and watch a movie with me in the living room (I was exhausted) but they had no interest.

    It’s a real shame though and I feel so bad for kids who start out this way because it’s just one more giant struggle they’ll have their whole lives.
    .-= Claudine´s last blog ..The Time TSA Was More Delightful Than The Southwest Agent =-.

  5. I’m of mixed mind on processed food. My reaction to reading Fast Food Nation was to really, really want a burger (I worked in food service and have been on farms, so none of it was surprising to me).

    That said, pregnancy weight gain and activity levels is one of my pet causes. I ran through both pregnancies, and people acted like I was doing something risky. You know what’s risky? *Not* exercising during pregnancy and hence gaining 50+ lbs. We hate to judge, and weight is such a tricky issue for people, but we have to stop viewing pregnancy and motherhood as excuses to get fat. They aren’t. The same health rules apply. Moms who gain too much weight during pregnancy or start off overweight are putting their children at risk.

  6. At the risk of sounding libertarian, parents bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for their kids becoming obese. Until the government and/or the food-industrial complex actually enters my home and starts shoving Twinkies down my kids’ throats, I’m responsible for what we eat here (and with kids ages 18, 13, 8, and 2, I realize how my ability to influence their diets changes over time).

    We always ate crap growing up — every kind of fast food imaginable, plus every sugar- and dye-laden product out there — and, frankly, it was awesome. I love sugar and fat. It’s delicious. Crappy food tends to taste really, really good, little kids tend to really, really whine when they want something good, and tired, overstressed parents are often really, really quick to give in.

    It’s easy to see the vicious cycle, but that doesn’t mean parents should constantly cave to it, or, at the very least, not monitor it. Say, hypothetically, you do eat at McDonald’s every day. Do you also need to get the large Coke? How about a large unsweetened iced tea, instead? How about water? Do you need two cheeseburgers? How about one? Must you super-size everything? How about asking for a small? (I realize even most smalls are pretty big these days, but still.) Do you have to get fries with the kids’ meals? Why not the apple slices they’ve been offering for years? Or how about getting one bag of fries but making everyone split it?

    I just really bristle at the thought that parents are powerless to influence their kids’ weight, let alone their own. I’m guessing if you bought only processed foods from the store and also ate fast food regularly, your kids still wouldn’t be fat. Why? Because you’d be enforcing portion control, eating as a family, and still getting plenty of exercise. Yes, processed, crappy food plays a role in the obesity epidemic, but the parents who see their kids getting heavier and heavier as they, too, keep expanding? There’s no way they don’t play an even bigger role.

    And I say this as someone who works extremely hard to stay slim, and who had four working-class grandparents (only one of whom finished high school) who fed their kids and grandkids fried bologna, mayo, Coke, Little Debbie’s, McDonald’s, canned veggies, and every other nutritionally bankrupt, yet cheap, food out there, but never allowed any gorging, and certainly never allowed any sitting around the house all day.

    None of these folks were educated, and they all came from dirt-poor backgrounds (three with no running water or electricity growing up). Magically, though, none of them needed the government or anyone else to tell them not to let their kids gorge on the (crappy) food they ate, or that sitting in front of the TV all day was a bad idea. They all embraced the notion of personal responsibility, and I guess I do, too. (But if there were no consequences to living on Doritos, donuts, and Coke?? I’d belly-up to the proverbial snack bar in a heartbeat!!)


  7. You caught me while away on a “body detox” wellness center. If I wasn’t convinced before of the extremely strong role food plays with your body processes, I am now. In just 2 days of being here, I lost weight and went off my blood pressure meds – and my blood pressure has never been so good. Putting the wrong (ie. processed, salty) food into your body is the very worst thing you can do for your health. And don’t get me started on the ways nutrition labels are set up to fool you…
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Learning New Ways

  8. Obese children are perplexing to me, given that my kids’ default setting is running and when they’re really jacked up from being inside too long, they create the most brilliant exercise routines just by being wild kids.

    That said, we are a healthy, active family with enough time to prioritize hiking, evening walks, home cooked meals and bike rides to the park. I know this is not an option for everyone.

    I live in Colorado, which is I believe, the least obese state in the US, but I’ve seen obese children when I travel and I’m sure starting off life as an overweight person makes your chances of losing weight harder as an adult.

    I have a friend who lets her daughters pick out one thing each at the grocery store each trip but the item has to contain all ingredients that they can identify. I love this idea.
    .-= 6512 and growing´s last blog ..The vortex of summer =-.

  9. I’ve done some writing about what happens in the brain when one becomes obese, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it self abuse or child abuse. In some people, there’s a mechanism that gets broken and they literally feel hungry all the time. It’s easy for those of us who are relatively skinny and who were raised by relatively skinny parents to think that it’s just a problem of naivete coupled with laziness, but it’s a lot more complex than that. It’s more like alcoholism. Some people’s brains are screwed up, so it makes food a lot harder for them to resist.

    Also, I’ve been trying to lose 5 pounds for the past 6 months and have been so unsuccessful at it that I’ve finally decided to just buy a larger clothing size if I ever have money again to buy clothes. So if I can’t lose just 5 pounds (and I run and I love veggies and I once wrote about dieting for a living), then I can only imagine the type of battle needed to lose 100 pounds.

    All of that said, it would be a lot easier for our society as a whole to get healthy if we stopped marketing crappy foods to children. The crappiest foods are at children’s eye level at most grocery stores. Fast food restaurants package toys with their crappiest foods. And crappy food commercials are on all of the cartoon networks. I’m fine with McDonald’s giving away toys with salads (assuming it’s not the one with the fried chix/cheese/etc on top). If we can get our country to start rewarding children (and grownups too!) for eating healthy foods and penalizing them for eating unhealthy ones (by taxing them and making them cost more), we might make progress. Until then, this issue is just going to get worse and worse with each generation. Heck, we can’t even serve a healthy school lunch in this country (outside of California anyway).
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..A Primer on Tone of Voice =-.

  10. An article in the Chicago Tribune today (http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/sc-food-0609-health-obesity-20100609,0,986484.story) suggests that people haven’t learned how to prepare healthy foods in a world where everything is pre-made, ready-to-eat. Cooking has become a “spectator sport.” I don’t think doctors have any chance of changing that, as the article somehow suggests, but I think there may be some truth to that being a contributing factor (among many). If parents don’t cook and Home Ec classes are cut, it’s up to the individual to teach him/her self how to cook. Like working out and portion control, learning food preparation becomes an issue of personal responsibility. Sign up for cooking lessons, borrow cookbooks from the library, research healthy cooking techniques online.
    .-= Mama Em´s last blog ..Learning to Giggle =-.

  11. I do try and make most of our food from scratch, but I don’t shy away from buying pretzels, granola bars–even the occasional Twizzler. I think, as with everything, there has to be some balance. I’m a lousy gardener too, so instead of investing in seeds, I invest time in finding good farmers markets. I’ll admit, though, it’s hard to find time to do everything you intend to do as a parent, count me as still trying…
    .-= Kristen´s last blog ..Look for my latest article in KIWI Magazine: Service Birthdays =-.

  12. Oh, I’m going to sound crabby here. In the long run, we are responsible for what we put into our own mouths. Yes, I know that advertising, the industrial food complex, our parent’s divorce, the stressful job all play into the problem. But ultimately, we have to love ourselves enough to say, “I am responsible for myself. I will educate myself about the best food to put into my body.” That example will filter down to children and grandchildren.
    .-= Donna Hull´s last blog ..Celebrating World Oceans Day =-.

  13. Yes, yes, yes.

    I recommend your readers Google “The Food Movement, Rising,” in the June 10th issue of the New York Review of Books. An excerpt: “But perhaps the food movement’s strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food, laced with added fats and sugars, is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system … The health care crisis probably cannot be addressed without addressing the catastrophe of the American diet, and that diet is the direct (even if unintended) result of the way that our agriculture and food industries have been organized.”

    Also, I would like to contribute an interesting tidbit from the Detox chapter of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: “REDUCE YOUR FAT INTAKE: Because many of the chemicals of concern travel up the food chain and are stored in fat tissues, reducing the intake of fat in foods like meat and diary will reduce your exposure not only to phthalates but also to pesticides and PBDEs.”
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Plastic, Plastic Everywhere …. =-.

  14. And one more relevant reference to this new tendency to obesity from the April 12th Time magazine: “Chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates

  15. I read that article from the New York Times and it’s stuck with me, too. Like you, I don’t blame the women and children who are obese. I fault the food industry. I’ve made significant changes to my diet in the last few years, especially with cutting out soy, gluten and added salt. It really forces you to choose fresh foods and avoid processed, packaged foods. But what concerns me is the cost and availability. I grew up in a small Texas town and my family is still there. When I visit, the food choices are limited, both at the grocery store and in the proliferation of fast food in the town. It’s not easy to be poor and make the dietary changes necessary, especially if you have a family to support. Changing the foods and drinks available in schools is a start.
    .-= Jesaka Long´s last blog ..On Revisions and Feedback: It

  16. I worked with long-time midwives during both of my pregnancies. They had me fill out a food journal daily to make sure I was getting enough nutrients for my baby. I am 5’9 and with both pregnancies I gained 60 lbs — which is more than I would like to of gained. However, I believe that calorie restriction while pregnant is not appropriate. I believe steering clear of processed foods, eating whole grains, nuts & seeds, multiple servings of fruits and vegetables, drinking lots of filtered water, and moving and stretching your body daily is the right way to go. While pregnant your baby is getting the foundation of its health for the rest of its life. Starving yourself (and your baby) while pregnant is wrong — you are supposed to gain weight. With that said, 60 lbs is more than I would like to of gained — and I am struggling with loosing it all. How do you draw the line on what is necessary to give your baby a solid foundation and what is excess? I don’t know.

  17. I have been seeking and buying organic food since the early 90’s. My husband or I prepare our meals 29 out of 30 days a month from raw ingredients. It is expensive. Some families don’t always have the option to purchase more expensive “real” food because they don’t have the resources. Buying a happy meal is relatively cheap — and the kids get a toy which they love. I believe that our government needs to stop giving handouts to Monsanto and it’s buddies in the form of subsidies to commercial farms. Perhaps if it gave more support to organic and family farms more people could buy nutrient rich “real” food and would therefore have a greater appreciation for…the earth. But perhaps those same people could also turn off their cable, stop buying video games…etc, and have more money for real food. Just thoughts.

  18. VERY thought provoking. I have a friend who’s obese and very into her “fat empowerment” movement, which I support, but always feel a little sad for because I worry about her health. Really, there’s no win-win here when you care about people who are happy with how they are (and really, shouldn’t we all strive for that?).
    .-= Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last blog ..New Facebook

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