Saturday, April 3, 2010

Obesity and family food choices

I've been to two high school productions recently. One was a musical, the other a choral event. Let me tell you what I noticed. In the musical, of the performers who didn't have lead roles, I'd say about 1 in 4 was overweight. In the choral production, the ratio was even higher -- nine of the 13 singers were overweight and probably five of them would be considered obese. I was shocked.

But maybe that's just the way it is today. Bill Baroni, a well-known New Jersey politician who told me about his 132-pound weight loss, said that when he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the target of cruel comments and hurtful exclusion by other children because he was “the fat kid” in his class. But today, he speculated, kids might not have it so bad.

“Today, you’re not the only fat kid in the class,” he said. “You’re just one of many fat kids.”

In fact, that’s just what health researchers have found. In a 2002 survey, the National Center for Health Statistics calculated that about 17 percent of children over the age of six are overweight or obese—that’s around 13.5 million children. That number has more than doubled in the last few decades. And who knows what’s happened in the years since the survey.

Having a child myself, I don’t want to believe that the blame lies solely with parents. And, in fact, I don’t think it does. Read up on the food industry—Don’t Eat This Book by Morgan Spurlock or Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser—to come face to face with the powerful corporate forces that are battling us for our children’s health.

But we are not blameless. One Cornell University researcher has quantified just how much responsibility we as parents bear. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink examines the influence of the person in the family he calls “the nutritional gatekeeper.” That's the parent who does the menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking. Through extensive studies, Wansink found that this person is responsible for about 72 percent of a family’s food choices.

I was heartened by that number, because it means that in our own house we can control all but 28 percent of the food our child eats. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that the decisions we make aren’t always good. Grilled sausage-and-cheese sandwiches. Donuts. Cheese puffs. Pepperoni pizza. Of our own volition, we abdicate some of our responsibility on a daily basis.

I recently laid out on the kitchen table the typical foods my son eats during an average day. I checked labels, looked up nutritional information online and added up his intake of just one ingredient: sugar. I'll post the results soon.... as soon as I pick myself up off the floor!


  1. Wow - that is certainly something to think about. I notice the obesity all around me as well, and it is truly unsettling.

  2. I, too, have noticed this when I am working at the school. It is sad. Even though I was a little chubby growing up my mother didn't allow me to eat as much as I wanted of certain foods. Yes, I needed to be more active and yes we needed more healthy foods around, but she did the best she could and good thing too, or I would've been obese.

    I know as a parent I try and watch what how much my kids are eating and don't let them sit and play video games all the time. I'm blessed that they have always loved to play outside no matter the weather. I was a book worm and less into sports as a kid, but my husband was an athlete, so I'm grateful that they enjoy activity as much as they do.

    Sorry, long comment, but you are talking about a very serious topic here and I agree with you. Not sure I want to measure foods just yet..that could have me on the floor as well. :)

  3. Thanks for your comments, Leah and Dawne. In my son's elementary school years, I didn't see much overweight, just one or two children, but now that my son is in middle school, I can see the eating choices beginning to take their toll on his friends.

    I once talked with a boy who at age 16 lost 75 pounds using a personal trainer. Almost as an afterthought, he said to me, "I wish my mom had given me healthier food to eat when I was growing up." That comment cut like a knife to my heart. Who will help my son make good choices if I don't? I get tired of being the "bad cop." I wish he would of his own free will ask me for salads and whole wheat bread. But he never will, unless I make it his habit. The pull of fast food and candy and soda is so strong. It makes me wish sometimes that we lived in another country!