Let's Ban the Word Obesity

I admit it: when I saw the headline in the New York Times last night (“Obesity Is Found to Gain Its Hold in Earliest Years”), I was thrilled. I’ve been nagging about the importance of teaching our youngest children good eating habits for years now. And I run a non-profit that does just that: we work with early child care centers, their students and families to make eating healthy food fun. Finally, mainstream media was giving our littlest ones the attention they need and deserve.

This morning, coffee in hand, I did my usual Facebook scan and found these two point/counterpoint articles on Babble “I’m a Dietitian, and My Toddler Is Obese” and “Obese Toddlers Do Not Obese Children Make.” My head started to hurt. I drank more coffee.

You see, I’m also a mom of two little ones so I experience first-hand, multiple times a day, the joys and challenges of feeding young kids. Do I buy all organic? Or is organic not that big of a deal? Do I avoid GMOs like the plague or celebrate innovation? Should we be eating an all vegetarian diet or embracing meat? Is saturated fat good or will fat make us fat? Will obese toddlers become obese adults or will obese toddlers “stretch” normally? And just how do I get my kids to love their greens?

Truly it’s enough to make my head spin. And honestly, it does. The food and nutrition news is so loud, so constant and so loaded, I find I’ve stopped listening. Instead, I stick with what I believe and keep doing what I usually do. Out with friends on Saturday night, we had an engaging discussion about GMOs, the science behind them, their role in innovation and the state of hungry children in developing countries. It was fascinating and truly thought provoking. But did it change my stance on GMOs? Nope.

Do I think early childhood is a critical time to establish good eating habits and maintain a “healthy” weight? Absolutely. There is compelling data on obesity rates in early childhood and how obese youngsters become obese adolescents and obese adults. Does this mean every obese child is doomed? No, of course not. Does this mean every “average” weight child is spared? No, of course not.

An “average” weight child can live on frozen nuggets, Doritos and sugary cereal, and not be classified as “obese.” But does that mean the child is living a healthy life? I say we ban the word “obese” and focus, instead, on actual health. I realize it’s easier to use a BMI number as a proxy for “is my child ok,” but it really only tells part of the story. I say, instead of focusing on the BMI number or your child’s growth percentile or weight, ask yourself: Does my child run around more than they sit on the couch watching TV? Does my child eat minimally processed whole foods more than they eat processed, junk food? Does my child sit and eat at regular meal times more than snack throughout the day in the carseat? Is my child full of energy and enthusiasm for life and learning or lethargic and disengaged?

Then it’s less about staying on top of the ever-changing world of nutrition science and focusing instead on overall health. It is overwhelming, navigating the world of what and how we feed our children. When things become overwhelming, we tune out. We focus on what we believe to be true and what we are capable of doing. That makes changing what and how we feed our children hard. And we do have to change, as our children may live shorter lives that us. We are all making the best decisions we can, in a world where making any decision is tough (how many types of cereal are there in the cereal aisle?!) and doing something new is even harder (when was the last time you bought a totally new product at the grocery store?). If buying all organics aligns with your sense of healthy eating, go for it; if it’s not that important to you, don’t worry. At the end of the day, just try your best to give your kids a good start for a healthy life.

​(I deliberately did NOT include links to the articles that present compelling evidence on both sides of these debates; that said, email me or comment below, and I'll share.)

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