Child Obesity is Child Abuse?

This is a guest blog post by Jill Castle MS, RD, LDN

Child abuse is a combination of words that gets your attention. Lately, the term “child abuse” has been linked with the child obesity epidemic.

Broaching the issue in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. David Ludwig, a child obesity expert from Boston, argued that children who are morbidly obese and near death should be considered for removal from their parents, and the environment they live in.

This begs the question: Is ignoring, and therefore allowing, child obesity a form of child abuse?

That’s a tough question to answer, and here’s why:

Studies show that in many cases, parents don’t even recognize that their child is overweight or obese. A study in Preventing Chronic Disease details this low awareness, even among the educated. Researchers found 90% of parents of preschoolers classified their children as normal weight, when in fact they were overweight. And when you look at cultural norms, child obesity recognition can become even more difficult.

If parents don’t see it, how can they help or take action?

Many parents suspect there may be problems with their child’s weight, but don’t know where to turn for help. It is not uncommon for parents to hear the advice, “Don’t worry, your child will grow out of it,” which may undermine their concerns and potentially delay needed help.

If parents are really concerned, they may start combing the web looking for information, only to find a hodge-podge of conflicting, alarming statistics, information, and a lack of actionable steps. Or parents take things into their own hands, adopting adult practices such as dieting or a forced march to the gym, all in an effort to reverse their child’s weight. And this gets parents caught up in practices that may be counter-productive to producing a healthy weight, such as restricting, pressuring or controlling their child’s eating.

And then there’s the obesogenic environment (fancy term for the prevalence of large amounts of calorie-dense foods, sedentary-promoting activities and commercialism that encourages eating) which makes it challenging for even the most educated, nutrition-savvy folk to navigate.

And lastly, there’s intention. Most parents I know never intended for obesity to enter their family. In fact, a big fear amongst parents is that they will have an obese child, or somehow contribute to this situation in some way.

Child obesity is complicated. Reversing it is even harder. Preventing it may prove to be the trickiest of all.

It’s not about eating, folks, it’s about feeding kids. And we haven’t been giving parents the “on the job” training they need: education, resources and support to do a good job of feeding their kids. After all, it is an 18+ year job.

When parents know about feeding their kids (what to feed them, how to feed them, and why to feed them), they have a better chance at recognizing child obesity, advocating for help when their child needs it, discerning helpful from hindering nutrition information, and navigating the obesogenic environment.

Whether you are for or against the child abuse connection, children are surely the victims.

Jill Castle is a child nutrition expert, blogger at Just The Right Byte, speaker, nutrition consultant and private practice owner. She lives with her husband and 4 children in Nashville, TN. 

 

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  • Sheila

    Overfeeding a kid might be abusive but underfeeding a kid definitely is child abuse.  Something to keep in mind as fanatic fruit & veggie diets are being zealously advocated, even for children. Fruits and veggies are mostly water, not much protein and usually overpriced to the point a parent is inclined to skrimp. Any parent restricting a child to an orthorexic diet should be hauled in for child abuse and the poor kids placed with sane foster parents.

    • FrugalArugula

      I like to think about it this way. Someone is MUCH more likely to REPORT a parent, a child for being underweight (or they end up in the hospital). That doesn’t happen for fat kids until “fat” is a conservative adjective.

  • http://twitter.com/mstrozewski ms

    I have seen first hand, that there are parents out there that anytime their child whines, cries or throws a tantrum, they give them food. Ice cream, McDonalds, burger king..whatever is readily available they will give it. The parents are probably so high strung they don’t know what else to do and see that this response helps the child calm down. While most of the children I have seen are not Obese, some of them are and eating junk food all the time doesn’t help. I believe there is a line that can be drawn from child obesity to child abuse. Unless the parents completely neglect their child’s eating habits or don’t feed them at all, then the child can be taken away. But to do it for Child Obesity, that’s wrong. Some families have big bone genes & other children may have a thyroid problem or other disease that causes them to keep getting bigger. 

  • D_zacher

    I always find it funny that when it comes to babies, everyone measures the health of the baby by how big they are and what percentile they fall in, as if being having a child in the 90th percentile was some parental achievement worthy praise and there must be something wrong with small babies. Some parents carry this idea to toddlerhood and childhood until they realize that maybe being the biggest kid on the block isn’t such a good thing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Heidi-Hall/607570309 Heidi Hall

      you have to consider the height/ weight ratio though. if you have a child who is in the 90th % for weight of course they are probably going to weight more than a child who is at 50% height and 50% weight. the issue would be where you have a child who is higher in weight than height percentage. 

  • Mariah

    This is a wonderful article. This issue is not black and white and Jill reiterates that. I agree that it is not the intention of parents for their children to be obese. But it is their responsibility to make sure their kids are healthy. Do I think taking kids away from their families is the right way to make sure they are healthy? Absolutely not! I’m a firm believer that information and education changes things, not breaking families apart. However, it pains me when I see kindergarteners and pre-schoolers that are quite obviously obese. But I don’t jump to the conclusion that their parents are abusing them. It makes me upset that they aren’t informed enough to realize the very real risk of many issues and problems that come with extra pounds. Obesity is everywhere. We have to start spending more money on educating people and less on ripping families apart. People DO better when they KNOW better.

    Thanks again for the article Jill.

  • Mitzi Dunagan

    I was always at the other end, the very lowest possible healthy weight for my height, not because of abuse, but metabolism. An “orthexic” diet, as Sheila calls it, actually helps me digest food better and have a better weight profile. Big steak? digestive agony for days. Beans and rice and veggies? Happiness. How to help kids at both ends of the spectrum? Feed them the right foods, with snack/junk foods as occasional treats. Their physical responses will help you figure out the individual mix of fiber/fat/protein/carbs they need to fuel their activities. Some kids will always be rail thin, some stocky. But we need parents trained more in how to observe the children’s development, and physicians with enough nutritional knowledge to advise them. Expecting everybody to be stupid and the medical system to pick up the slack has not worked. Time to raise the bar and educate people, as this blog helps to do. Thanks.

  • cookie

    Part of the problem is the parents had 18 years ofon the job  training as to what to eat, and that has become ingrained. Until recently, HFCS wasn’t so prevalent. Protein was pushed. Fat was more evil than carbs. Both parents started working away from home and fast food, whether at home or in restaurants became the norm. Cafeteria food and nutrition didn’t seem as important as feed people cheaply. Now, the mind says fruits, vegetables, grains, but history tells parents that food is for comfort as well as nutrients. When busy, knee jerk reaction reaches ofr comfort foods.

  • mike

    Fat parents make fat babies and fat kids. A very small part is genetic, its mostly environmental. If mom and dad are fat, dont exercise, eat crap food, then they dont have the knowledge to do so. If they don’t have the knowledge to do it to/for themselves, how would they pass that along to their children.

  • Yisroal

    I know my comments are late but if anyone actually reads this they will agree with my position.
    Fat kids are the result of a series of steps taken by school districts and mostly parents. The reduction in funding for local schools have forced a sever cut back in education over the past 30+ years. This is very obvious in all areas of the US Education system. Now after all the years of this ‘dumbing down’ we can see the disastrous results. All that was required was to raise local school taxes to cover the cost of a decent public education. But no, most were too cheap to accept a few mils raise on the school portion of there tax bill.  
    Today’s parent are the product of this reduction of education to accommodate a ever shrinking budget. You did not pay for it so now you got what you paid for.
    Fat people are the results of bad eating and choices due in large part to a lack of education at the elementary levels. It is an epidemic problem that can only be fixed with the truth, not cream puff articles such as this one that makes excuses for bad choices. Clean out the Frig and the pantry to start. Remove all the crap food from the home and take some classes in eating healthy. Get your kids and yourselves off the couch and go for a nice walk after a proper diner. Get your kids into sports and better yet get your fat butts up and set an example. Parents are to lead the household and set examples for the children to follow. From my vantage point most parents in the US have failed on the most basic levels.

  • Yisroal

    I know my comments are late but if anyone actually reads this they will agree with my position.
    Fat kids are the result of a series of steps taken by school districts and mostly parents. The reduction in funding for local schools have forced a sever cut back in education over the past 30+ years. This is very obvious in all areas of the US Education system. Now after all the years of this ‘dumbing down’ we can see the disastrous results. All that was required was to raise local school taxes to cover the cost of a decent public education. But no, most were too cheap to accept a few mils raise on the school portion of there tax bill.  
    Today’s parent are the product of this reduction of education to accommodate a ever shrinking budget. You did not pay for it so now you got what you paid for.
    Fat people are the results of bad eating and choices due in large part to a lack of education at the elementary levels. It is an epidemic problem that can only be fixed with the truth, not cream puff articles such as this one that makes excuses for bad choices. Clean out the Frig and the pantry to start. Remove all the crap food from the home and take some classes in eating healthy. Get your kids and yourselves off the couch and go for a nice walk after a proper diner. Get your kids into sports and better yet get your fat butts up and set an example. Parents are to lead the household and set examples for the children to follow. From my vantage point most parents in the US have failed on the most basic levels.

  • Anon
  • Pingback: The Skinny On Obesity

  • Pingback: Obesogens: It’s Not The Food Making You Fat. It’s the Additives. « Alternative Health Answers

  • tdm71

    I just saw a pic of my daughter, I have not seen in 6yrs. I told her the last time I saw when she was 11 that her mom was doing her a disservice by not having her stay active and letting her eat junk food all day everyday. It really pains me cause I told her when she was younger exactly how she would look & that kids would & they already had started making fun & picking on her. I never called my child any names I just gave her the cold hard facts how people treat who do not look the same as them. From that point on I haven’t heard from her. I served in the army 3 yrs & 7 in the Navy so this really pisses me off that her mother could let this happen to her. She set her up to fail! I believe it is a form of neglect & abuse by doing nothing! !! What can I do?? I love my daughter no matter what. I am a 40yr old bm who is fit that can’t get his daughter to see she has a problem.