Kate Birch, mother of three children, aged 14, 12 and six
Imagine my horror, as a parent who instils healthy eating as a given rather than an option, when my six-year-old son proudly sang me a song: ‘McDonalds! McDonalds! Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut!’. I doubt I would have been more mortified if he’d strung together a string of four-letter expletives (though in my book, there is no difference).
I bring my kids up to understand healthy eating. They still have treats, but they understand that a carrot is better than a cake, and broccoli superior to a Big Mac.
Asking whether kids should go on diets is missing the big-boned elephant in the room – whether you're age five or 50, if you’re fat, you should be given the skinny on the damage you are doing to yourself.
When I see an overweight child, it makes me angry – not with the kid but with the (invariably portly) parent. To quote my food-fascist mother, “It’s a form of child abuse”. OK, it’s not exactly, but parents have a duty to ensure their offspring aren’t overdosing on sugars, fats and fast food.
And anyone playing the convenience and cost card when it comes to the F words (fast foods) should take a look at an apple. After all, most teenagers I know think that an apple is a way to have 24/7 access to Facebook.
Sadly, the facts back me up. “The risks of obesity should be taken seriously,” says Dubai-based clinical dietician Caroline Kanaan Kamel. “Parents have a responsibility to nourish the child, so should provide the healthiest food possible.
Told you so. And if you think this is just the rantings of a highly experienced health professional and experienced mother, then listen to the statistics from the World Health Organisation. More than 75 per cent of women and 66 per cent of men in the UAE are overweight, with those figures set to increase. Visiting US researcher Kelly Stott, from Columbia University, also found what kids are eating to be particularly worrying, with parents and schools mostly to blame.
“Poor nutrition and reduced physical activity are the two main factors behind the alarming proportions of health imbalance in the UAE,” concluded Stott.
But enough about them, this is my opinion. Showing your kids what to eat to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle, educating them that treats are fine and everything in moderation, will not only keep them slim and fit but also give them the self-esteem and moral compass they require to navigate life’s many hurdles.
As for my son ever tucking in to McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut – while I have anything to say about it. Fat chance.
Louisa Wilkins, mother of two, aged five and three
I grew up in a weight-conscious household. As did my mother. As did my mother’s mother. And, for many years, it affected my ability to feel happy in my own skin. As such, I have been ultra-conscious about making sure my own children grow up in an environment where the ‘f’ word is only used adjectivally, such as a nice, fat, fluffy pillow, or a big, fat, juicy burger. It hangs in a state of equilibrium – it’s neither positive, nor negative, it just describes. There is a danger, of course, that this weight-blindness could lead my children down the path to obesity, and all its related health issues. But, with the Canadian Paediatric Surveillance Program reporting that the incidence of eating disorders in children aged five to 12 is now double the incidence of type 2 diabetes in that age group – and the fact that I control what food is served at my table – it’s a risk I am willing to take.
The British National Health Service (NHS) announced that, in three years, 2,000 children have been hospitalised for eating disorders – 200 of which were aged five to nine – and that 35 per cent of all hospital admissions for eating disorders were under 18. Meanwhile, a 2012 survey done at Al Ain University found 1.8 per cent of 900 girls aged 13 to 19 were anorexic. This is scary stuff. Whether it’s on the rise, or just previously under-reported, the point is that children are aware of weight, and that fat-fear can lead to serious mental illness.
Shortly after the NHS report, the release of Maggie Goes on a Diet, a rhyming children’s book about a girl who goes from being “chubby” to slim and, as a result, is happier and more popular, caused widespread outrage. Cynthia Bulik, eating disorder expert at the University of North Carolina, said, “We don’t want kids to ‘go on diets,’ we don’t want kids to use diet language. It emphasises valuing people for their size rather than for who they are.”
So, what do you do if your child is overweight? On her website, American nutritionist and social worker Ellyn Satter says, “Do not hold back on food, or try to restrict your child to smaller portions, or low-fat, low-sugar food. She will get scared and eat too much when she gets the chance. Don’t feed her differently from other family members. It will hurt her feelings. Instead, feed in the best way for her stage of development.” This is the point – no matter how kindly, or scientifically, you mean it, the word ‘diet’ hurts people’s feelings – especially when it comes from someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally. And when young feelings are hurt, emotional damage can quickly lead to psychological issues. I am not suggesting that the word ‘diet’ is to blame for the shocking levels of childhood eating disorders – or the word ‘fat’, or size-zero models, or even celebrity-obsessed culture. All I know is that I am responsible for the emotional welfare of my two children. And I don’t want to be to blame either.
This hot debate was originally published in Aquarius magazine