Should Parents Be Punished if Their Kids Are Obese?

Who Is to blame for girth?

Posted Mar 20, 2015

Several years ago, when volunteering in a high school science class, I attempted to get some teenage girls interested in nutrition by linking good food choices to their appearance.  Naively, I asked them about typical meals at home to get a sense of their fruit and vegetable consumption. It was a non-starter. “We don’t eat at home unless we don’t have any money or the weather is bad,“ I was told. Although the school breakfast and lunches provided some of the nutrient-dense foods they were not eating at home, these were as untouched as the vegetables in their home refrigerators.  

The plethora of fast-food restaurants near the school and the bus stop a few blocks away were their dining places. Quick-served chicken nuggets, hamburgers, pizza, and subs accompanied by side dishes of fries, chips, candy bars and cookies made up their daily food intake and were supplemented by mall food court selections on weekends. My suggestions that they eat more meals at home so they would consume nutrients necessary for good skin and hair (aka good health) was received with about as much enthusiasm as if I had suggested a snack of fried worms.

My interactions with these students came to mind when listening to a recent debate on CNN about whether parents are responsible for the obesity of their children. The easy, obvious answer is yes. Parents, guardians and caretakers provide food and create the eating environment in which the children grow up. They learn by example which foods they should be eating or avoiding.  The foods in the home reflect the lifestyle, along with the ethnic, ideological and religious eating culture of the parents.

Children of vegans eat differently than children of meat-and-potato eating parents. Mormon children don’t consume caffeinated sodas, and Muslim children don’t eat pork. Children in the southwest may take for granted that their foods are hot with chili peppers, while children in the northeast expect that peanut butter sandwiches contain Marshmallow Fluff.   However, the years during which parents have complete control over what and how much their children are eating are quite limited.  Daycare, pre-school, and birthday parties, as well as snacks at playdates may provide foods not served at home.  Visits to friends' and relatives' homes quickly dilute the sovereignty of their parents over what is on their kid’s plate and, indeed, how much of what is on the plate is actually consumed. After reading a book I had written about how a dachshund hid the dog food he hated to eat to elementary school children, they told me how they disposed of the foods they didn’t like (usually vegetables) by throwing them in the garbage or in the toilet.  

School, and perhaps summer camp, create even more inroads into parental oversight over what is being eaten or avoided.  Does any parent really know what his child is eating for lunch, what has been traded away, thrown away, or concealed in the bottom of a knapsack? Frustratingly, imposing some dietary restrictions at home, such as prohibiting sugary drinks, cookies and chips, may be ignored when friendship with the child of more snack-lenient parents allows these foods to be gobbled in the friend’s kitchen.  

But in all fairness to those deeply concerned about how parents may be making their children obese, it is hard to deny that the lifestyle of parents can influence their kids’ weight, regardless of how often they eat at home. If the few family meals that are eaten together are more likely to feature buckets of fried chicken and biscuits or microwaved mac and cheese than fish, chicken, lean meat, vegetables, high-fiber carbohydrates and fruit, the calories ingested could well increase the pounds of both adults and children.  If the supersized restaurant portions are reproduced in the size of portions served at home, kids will assume that food should always be eaten in large quantities. And if Mom and Dad and the kids munch on potato chips, cookies, ice cream, pork rinds and frozen pizza rather than yogurt, fruit, low-fat breakfast cereals and carrot sticks when they want a snack, the entire family may become supersized.

It is not easy to change the eating culture of families whose adults and children are obese. And it is obvious that any intervention, whether from the school or physician, to get the obese child to lose weight must include changing the way the parents and other siblings also eat. Fining or punishing parents is certainly not the route to change. Imposing severe dietary restrictions that alter the way a family traditionally eats probably won’t work for long either. It is easy to go back to the familiar, comfortable foods rather than eating unfamiliar ones whose preparation and taste may be difficult or unacceptable. I once saw a program on television in which nutritionists altered the recipes of a family’s favorite dish to decrease its calories and improve its nutrient values. One nutritionist /cook, in her desire to make something healthy, put in so many, to the family, strange ingredients, they could barely bring themselves to taste it. Clearly change has to be within the family’s taste bud comfort zone.   

The best solution is gentle rather than cataclysmic change. Substituting lower calorie, higher nutrient snacks and meal foods, altering the ingredients in recipes to decrease fat and sugar without changing the dish into something unrecognizable, decreasing portion sizes, steering eating out options to restaurants with salad bars, fish and non-fried chicken options, and substituting non-caloric sodas, water and low-fat milk for sugary beverages will allow the family to change in ways that are comfortable and doable.  And just as important: getting the entire family to invest some time in physical activity, so that weight loss is enhanced and not dependent only on calorie consumption.  Of course, the teens, the ones who never eat at home, will have to be convinced that doing so and saving their money might allow them to spend it on something that lasts longer than a bag of french fries.

The obesity experts are right in concentrating on decreasing obesity in children, because if they are successful in getting them to eat more healthily and to exercise, it may also improve the health of their parents, and eventually the health of their own children. But the way to accomplish this is with a carrot, not a stick.