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Behavioural Obesity

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  • Article summary:

    Solving the obesity problem requires a shift of focus from food to behaviour.

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Behavioural Obesity


If you are an alert parent, you can’t help but be aware of the fact that a lot of children are getting too fat these days. Over the past several months, publications aimed at the general public as well as those targeted toward mothers and fathers have featured articles on the obesity epidemic that is devastating the younger generation. Many have gone so far as to say it is now the number one public health problem.

I commend most of these articles for pointing out the problem and for reiterating all the dire consequences of uncontrolled obesity. However, in my opinion, most of these articles have not done a particularly good job of steering parents toward a solution. In almost every case, the focus of the suggestions has been on eliminating all the deep fried and sugar sweetened foods and drinks that children like to consume. I don’t feel that approach will be effective. Furthermore, I don’t even think it is either possible or appropriate.

Let’s face it. Whatever restrictions parents may place on their diets, young children are ingenious when it comes to finding forbidden fruits. Especially after they are in school and otherwise spending a lot of time in situations where mothers and fathers are unable to exert direct control, kids are able to make a certain number of food choices on their own. And it is a pretty safe bet that they won’t be choosing wisely on a regular basis. The temptations promoted and provided by commercial interests will routinely trump parental instructions and admonitions.

Even if parents are able to make the instructions and admonitions stick, is that fair to the kids? Some of life’s greatest pleasures are derived from devouring things that aren’t necessarily nutritious. Can you imagine a childhood that is filled with tofu patties and green salads, completely devoid of Twinkies and hot fudge sundaes? What is the point of having a long life if that life isn’t enjoyable?

As far as I’m concerned, solving the obesity problem requires a shift of focus from food to behaviour. In previous generations, children’s consumption patterns were just as improper as they are today. The major difference that I see is that modern parents seem to be far more indulgent.

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Seattle having dinner with some business clients. Temporarily ignoring the juicy steak and gravy-laden mashed potatoes, I promptly gobbled up the portion of string beans that had been served with my entrée. One of my dining partners remarked, “You must love string beans.”

“Actually, I detest string beans,” I replied.

“So why are you eating them?” he inquired.

“As far as I know,” I explained, “my mother is 3,000 miles away at her home in New York. However, if by some chance she walked into this restaurant right now and saw that I wasn’t eating my vegetables, I’d be in big trouble.”
That line got a big laugh, but the point I was making is no laughing matter. My childhood was filled with all sorts of goodies, many of them homemade by my mother herself. But there was always a distinction between fuel for the body and treats for the soul. And it was made clear that one was entitled to treat the soul only after the body had been properly fueled.

The rules were simple and productive. My sister and I were provided with a nutritious meal and the knowledge that brownies, pie, ice cream or some other delicacy was waiting in the wings. If we didn’t care for what we were served, tough luck. Our choice was to eat it or go hungry. After a night or two of going to sleep while listening to our stomachs grumble, we learned there was no wiggle room and that the rule would be enforced without exceptions or negotiations. Of course, once we proceeded to eat everything on our plates, our desire to dig into dessert was just as strong. But our capacity to consume was now significantly limited. As a result, the sweets were an extremely pleasant yet properly proportioned part of our meal.

The policy also applied to what we were having for the main course. It’s not like we were served something awful every evening. On the contrary, my mother did a pretty good job of making the fuel for the body quite tasty. Yet like any other kids, my sister and I craved macaroni and cheese, pizza, breaded chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, and all sorts of other stuff that fell largely into the treats for the soul category.

Again, we were not denied those treats. However, it was clear that they were to be considered special additions to rather than staples of our regular diet. We were permitted to partake of these delicacies no more than once a week or so. And their provision was contingent upon our consumption of considerably lower calorie fare without complaint during the preceding days.

Being normal children, my sister and I sought to violate the rules whenever we could. We used some of our precious allowance money to purchase cupcakes and candy, and we raided the refrigerators at the homes of our friends with less restrictive parents. But sneaking in some extra good stuff was a costly struggle; and as the aforementioned story illustrates, getting caught had severe consequences. Therefore, our forays into forbidden fruits were not only relatively rare, but ultimately more cherished.

I’m sure there are mothers and fathers who enforce similar rules today. On the other hand, I’ve personally witnessed countless modern families in which the parents are reluctant to “fight” with their children over food, so they choose indulgence over insistence. Afraid that they will lose their children’s affection and/or that their stubborn children will eventually starve, they simply allow the kids to eat whatever they like ­ and only what they like.

I’m increasingly seeing situations where two separate meals are prepared. While the parents are eating salmon fillets and squash, the kids are eating hot dogs and fries. I’m also seeing little ones allowed to turn up their noses at turkey breast and rice pilaf then stuff their faces with chocolate cake. And I’m seeing mothers and fathers provide their offspring with extra cash so they can purchase something they prefer from tuckshop if they don’t like what’s in their lunch boxes. In other words, instead of being the food police, many parents have become accessories to the crimes that children are inevitably inclined to commit.

It is easy to point the finger at the confectioners and fast food purveyors, and the simplicity of complete prohibition is more seductive than the arduousness of sensible education that leads to self-discipline. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in the stores but within ourselves. As long as children are taught that tickling the taste buds is the primary purpose of eating and that nutrition is secondary or irrelevant rather than vice versa, one shouldn’t be surprised when they suffer from obesity.

Michael K. Meyerhoff

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., "The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois.

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