Children aged less than 2 years old are finding themselves in hospital to treat their morbid obesity. This is consistent with Britain becoming the fattest nation in western Europe. Childhood obesity was the subject of a breakfast meeting chaired by Rod Liddle, another well-known journalist, only this week. At this meeting, a great deal of time was spent worrying about mothers who are downright abusive; feeding their children the kind of rubbish I would perhaps give to the family pigs (if I lived on a farm that is). Or mothers who are too busy to cook proper food for their children.
Or mothers who are unable to convince faddy eaters to eat their broccoli. Or mothers who are too lazy or too poor to buy nutritious food. Or at least tell themselves they are too poor. And mothers who are thwarted by cafeteria eating at school. And what about the fathers too?
Mothers came in for a lot of stick at this meeting – as did the food industry. Some mothers do deserve to sit on the naughty step. And the food industry- well that’s another story altogether. But I think that the problem of childhood obesity is more elusive and clearly shows an interaction between our genes, which favour gaining weight in times of plenty and the environment. These fat genes can easily switch on at any time, for example if a certain amount of sugar in the diet is present at an early age, or, if weight increases at a slightly higher rate than normal for any reason you care to name, and once those genes are on they are on for life.
We have all agreed that we are living in an ocean of food and perhaps it isn’t helpful blaming mums. Having said that, I sometimes wander round supermarkets and want to say to a parent, why are you buying this STUFF don’t you know what’s in it? Why are you giving this toddler a packet of crisps to keep them quiet while you do your shop? Do you know how much sugar is in that cereal? I did it once to see what happened and got a mouthful of abuse.
When I went to the fair when I was a little girl – it was candy floss or nothing. Now its Hagen Daaz, toffee apples, pizzas, doughnuts, fizzy drinks, and fries. We don’t eat now to survive, we eat to have fun and to spend time when we are bored and we slurp up coffees in big sizes in a mindless way, we buy foods to give us brain pleasure like crisps or chocolate just as smokers smoke cigarettes to make the tasks of everyday life just a little more pleasurable. Where childhood obesity is concerned, no one knows what a fat child really looks like any more unless they are significantly overweight and no one likes to get the fat letter from school. The “fat letter” doesn’t come with cast iron solutions either, since kids who are put on a diet just gain more weight when the diet comes to an end.
Writing in the Sunday Times on October 13, India Knight asks why so many of our kids are scoffing themselves to death while so many starving themselves in the quest to look like Miley Cyrus at the same time. She rightly questions the value of telling a child that they are fat. I’ve blogged about that somewhere else. And she rightly puts out a plea to dieting, weight obsessed mothers of young girls to do their stuff in private. I would add this warning to gym and health obsessed fathers of young boys. India wonders if obesity in children should be classified as a mental health disorder like anorexia which are signs of underlying unhappiness.
I would say to India that we are all less happy than we used to be, Oliver James has written about this in his book Affluenza. In the developed economies, our aspirations have spun way beyond our ability to meet them. Social media and Instagram culture have added to the sense that everyone else is doing better than you are. Journalists who are also parents in the Times are celebrating their excessive use of alcohol or their occasional use of lifestyle drugs as if we are interested in it. In the Times also this Sunday there was an article of a teenage boy who was made miserable when he was given a smartphone. Our children really do not have a hope.
So if you look for unhappiness in any individual child with a fatness or a slimming problem you will find it. When I work with an overweight child I am definitely going to help them gain confidence and self esteem. But years ago, most unhappy children did not become fat nor did they become anorexic. How you address the deeper unhappiness in our wealthy society, and whether it will solve the problem of childhood obesity is another thing altogether.
Childhood obesity programmes like MEND or the Carnegie Programme are well intentioned but they are a finger in the dyke of what we will need to fund the health risks of obesity which will cost this nation more than the cost of education. As for the Health At Every Size Movement, which ostensibly exists to deal with fat stigmatision,? By all means, lets deal with stigma but if this deflects efforts from trying to get the nation to eat a healthier diet, then it will do us and our children a disservice.
I’m an eating disorder specialist who cooks her own healthy food who had one fat child and two thin ones. I think that no child was significantly unhappier than the other. So I know from personal experience that obesity in children is a complex subject and wish I could come up with a solution.
Until we can, we have to keep writing about it though.