Today's headlines have been filled with the story of the Norfolk parents who have been arrested for child neglect and cruelty after their eleven year old 5ft 1" tall autistic son tipped the scales at 15 stone.
The boy's Body Mass Index is a dangerous 41.8 which classes him as morbidly obese. This puts him at very high risk of early death due to weight related health issues.
Social services became involved after the child's school aired their worries about the boy's weight. After social services were unsuccessful in being able to encourage the parents to implement necessary changes to reduce the boy's weight the police have now stepped in.
Having read a lot about this story it would seem that the parents themselves have their own serious food/lifestyle issues (they are both also classed as morbidly obese). One of the main reasons for these problems often comes down to an educational issue: As a parent how do we ensure our children are brought up with a healthy attitude to food and exercise? How do we ensure our children are at a healthy weight?
Since becoming pregnant with Bert this parenting problem has interested me so much. This is mainly due to my own childhood where, like the boy in the news, I was over weight from around 12 years old, hated exercise and have only been able to fight the flab and work through my exercise demons in my late twenties.
I have looked back over my own childhood, and tried to identify why I have had such a bad weight issue, and have researched, chatted to other parents and read books in order to help me decide what approach I'm hoping to take in terms of educating Bert, and any other children I might have, about food and exercise.
I was bought up with my mum, stepdad, twin sister and later, my baby brother (who is now 18) in a small village in Surrey. I had a very loving and happy childhood, full of lovely memories and lots of special times with my immediate and large extended family. I was extremely close to my grandparents on both sides and loved school and enjoying socialising with a large group of friends. It all sounds idyllic but there was a constant thorn in my side: my weight.
From as early as I can remember I have always loved food and been greedy. I was a chubby young child and then by the age of around 12 I weighed the same amount in stone. I put on weight steadily through my teenage years until I finally tipped the scales at 15 stone when I was 18 years old. This continued to increase until in my mid twenties - I hit 17 stone and decided enough was enough.
I will take the majority of the blame for my weight issues: I put the food into my mouth, I made the choice to eat too much, and barely ever exercise. BUT I also know that my upbringing had a part to play in my steady weight gain.
My mum is overweight, my biological father is hugely overweight, my stepdad is overweight, my grandparents were also overweight… there's a running theme here. I was bought up surrounded by overweight adults, all of whom have/had their own issues with food and/or exercise. The people around me ate big portions, had many treats and did little to no exercise. Before I knew it I was eating adult potions and copying the eating habits around me. I ate biscuits every day after school at my grandparent's house, biscuit after biscuit after biscuit. This wasn't seen as a treat, for me it was just a daily occurrence.
Every Christmas my paternal grandparents would deliver each of us (my sister, my brother and I) a giant sack each full of delicious high sugar/high fat treats (tins of biscuits, packs of chocolate bars, multipacks of crisps, boxes of chocolates etc) Three full sacks of deliciousness which usually didn't make it to February! Every Easter our huge extended family lavished us with many Easter eggs, and on my birthday I would choose a huge takeaway as my treat. The problem was that there were so many "treats" and so little exercise. Each Christmas sack, Easter egg and takeaway soon added up, and definitely resulted in my constant weight gain.
The main problem for me as a child was a lack of moderation, and my following of the examples around me.
My mum has always wanted to lose weight and has been successful at times, managing to slim down to a size 14 when I was a young teenager. However, like thousands of other people, she has yoyoed up and down trying various crazy diets over the years to little avail. I joined her in these diets along the way: the cabbage soup diet, Weight Watchers, Slimming World, Rosemary Connelly… we tried it all. As a teenager and into my twenties I felt constantly guilty about all the food I ate, and yet still I continued to over-eat.
The Turning Point
Finally, the motivation hit when my now husband proposed to me and I thought about what I wanted to look like on my wedding day. The answer: not obese. I worked hard at calorie counting (eating in moderation) and began walking every day, and by my wedding day I'd gone from 17 to 13 stone. And I feel proud of that achievement when I look at my wedding photos.
Shortly after our wedding I suffered a miscarriage (on my honeymoon) and really did hit rock bottom. I began comfort eating again and started to put weight back on. By the time I fell pregnant with Bert I'd crept back up to 14 stone, and by the time I went into labour I was back to my top weight again. I was cross with myself for having piled on so much weight during pregnancy and since his arrival I've worked really hard to slim down to 12.5 stone, with another 1.5 stone left for me to lose before I get to my 11 stone target.
Exercise is now a very regular part of my life: I walk a lot of long distances including a big family walk with my husband and Bert in his buggy at the weekends. I crosstrain 3-6 times a week for 45-80 minutes at a time. And, although it is hard to motivate myself on a daily basis, after completing the exercise I feel amazing, healthy, happy, and most importantly I no longer feel guilty about what I eat, as it is always within my calorie count.
The Parenting Problem
I want to break the cycle of 'over-weight parent brings up their child to be over-weight'. In order to achieve this I've asked myself a million questions about how I want Bert to feel about food and exercise...
I want him to be balanced. To have a healthy balanced attitude to food - I want him to enjoy ALL foods in moderation. I want him to be able to cook, to be interested in food - where it comes from, how to prepare it etc. I want him to take regular exercise not because he feels that he must but because he's been bought up with exercise as a normal part of daily life.
My husband and I hope to lead by example. We hope that by eating in moderation, cooking mostly from scratch and exercising regularly ourselves, he will follow our lead.
Perhaps most importantly in all this, before we educate our son, Liam and I have had to conquer our own food and exercise demons head on before he's old enough to be influenced by our eating and exercise habits. We have had to say enough is enough and make a clear choice to change our ways for the benefit of our child and any future children. Between us we've lost 9 stone since September. We have no intention of letting that weight creep back on again.
We intend to give our children suitable portion sizes, but allow them to enjoy all foods. I don't want to deny my son the joy of eating an ice cream from the ice cream man, or fish and chips at the beach. I want him to enjoy pudding after his roast beef on a Sunday. I don't want to take the joy out of food for him, I want him to happily enjoy it all without the need to binge, over eat or under exercise.
French Children Don't Throw Food
While I was pregnant with Bert I read a book called French Children Don't Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman which I found to be a really interesting read.
The book outlines how the French parent their children and how they differ to British parents. There is a lot of talk in the book about food, which I found really helpful. I wanted to share a few of the food/eating related principles in this book that I hope to adopt with my own children:
- We should teach our children to have three main meals evenly spaced throughout the day, as well as a 4pm (after school) snack. This is to discourage unnecessary snacking between meals.
- Your child should be expected to at least try every food on their plate (they might like something they thought they wouldn't). They can leave food but are offered no alternative (they are less likely eat veg if they know you'll give them crisps later if they're hungry). They should also be expected to re-try said food next time it's on their plate. Repeated exposure to a food they have rejected more often that not will end in them accepting and eventually enjoying the taste.
- Sweets, crisps, chocolate, cakes and biscuits shouldn't be forbidden but offered and available as part of a balanced diet.
- At other children's birthday parties you should allow your child to eat and drink freely.
- Keep fruit juice drinks to a minimum (available to accompany one meal time such as breakfast) as they are high in sugar and the acid in them is bad for their teeth. Water should be their main source of fluids throughout the day.
- Eat at the table as a family, and stay there until everyone has finished.
My husband and I always eat at the table together every night, and believe strongly in the importance of the dinner table. I also love the idea of letting children eat freely at children's birthday parties: sure they will over indulge and maybe make themselves feel sick once or twice...But the freedom of choice will be a learning curve for your little ones, and the hope is that you'll have equipped them with enough knowledge and a deep love of ALL foods that they'll make reasonably balanced choices while also indulging in a few treats.
I firmly believe that you can learn to like food… and I will be genuinely interested to see if the repeated exposure method works in getting Bert to enjoy foods he might at first reject.
The Matter of Exercise
Of course, eating a balanced diet alone isn't enough for a truly healthy lifestyle. If us parents want our children to grow into healthy adults we need to equip them with an understanding of how important regular exercise is. I hope that this is already something Bert is used to as he has watched me workout on the cross trainer many times already, and comes on all my long walks with me in his buggy. Again, I'm hoping that leading by example will be enough for him to see exercise as normal rather than as a "chore".
Our new family rule is that if it is walking distance (within an hour) and we have the time (we try to make the time & plan ahead) then we walk. We want Bert to grow up being used to walking most places, and to enjoy long county walks with us at the weekends.
I don't drive, and I refuse to use public transport unless completely necessary. I have perfectly capable legs and I use them as much as possible. Liam drives and we have a car in the driveway but we only use it for long distance car journeys: he walks to and from work every single day and only uses the car to get to work when it's absolutely necessary. This family rule helps to keep us healthy and has been a huge help in our combined weight loss.
I think it is vital that as parents we ultimately take responsibility for educating our children on these healthy principals. It is our duty as their parents to do our best to keep our kids healthy, but I also think there is a huge amount our education system could do to support this...
Education, Education, Education
I grew up hating exercise. I avoided PE as much as I could manage, and when I did take part I didn't do a lot. My PE teachers tended to put all their efforts and focus on the truly sporty kids, and the rest of us just tagged along. My problem with PE in schools is that it's sport orientated… and exercise isn't only about sport. You don't have to be a sporty person to exercise. Anyone can exercise - it's that simple.
I truly believe that school children's PE lessons should consist of 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day… they should be going on daily power walks, or being taught to use simple gym equipment efficiently and safely, they should be swimming, or taking part in an aerobics exercise class. After that 30 minutes of (yes, enforced) exercise children should also have access to sports classes and clubs to further their exercise education.
If between the ages of 5-16 children are getting daily exercise at school then SURELY this will at least HELP with this obesity epidemic? Surely the majorly of children would leave school being fully used to exercising regularly?
Furthermore, children should also have an in-depth food and cookery education in school which teaches them to cook a whole host of healthy balanced meals, so that by the time they leave school they are able to cook for themselves from scratch instead of having to rely on ready meals and take-aways.
When I was at school food tech was about making scones, apple crumble, and a Victoria sponge. It was only if you took it as a GCSE option that you learnt a little more about food groups, calories, and more complicated dishes. These subjects should be covered as standard from day one of our children's school career: they should be scrambling eggs, and making lasagnes, they should be able to tell you what foods belong to what food groups, and what a correct portion size is. Schools should be growing their own vegetables with the children, then harvesting and cooking them: from garden to plate.
Maybe I'm out of date, and perhaps schools do teach much more of this stuff now? But having only recently left a career in teaching, I do have a fair amount of understanding as to what's actually on the national curriculum these days, and I don't think it's good enough.
As parents we need to support our children's school education and our children's school education should support what as parents we are trying to teach at home.
A final note...
In a society that now on average takes 15 obese children into care each year, it's time we sat up and smelt the bacon! First and foremost we need to educate the parents of these obese children, not arrest them. We need to help them to beat their own food issues before they can help their children lose the necessary weight. Most importantly, we need better educatation for children at home AND at school about what it is to lead a healthy, balanced life and enjoy all things in moderation.
Do you agree with my view? Do you think the parents in question are neglectful and cruel? Do you struggle with your own food or exercise issues, and have they affected your children? Have you got any tips on what has worked to keep your children's attitude to food and exercise healthy?
It's a tough nut to crack. I hope I'll do a good job at bringing up healthy children, and I truly hope they don't suffer the same weight issues I have... nature or nurture… what will prevail?