Why be paranoid about puppy fat?
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on our unhealthy obsession with childhood obesity.
Once upon a time, little girls and boys tended to have ‘puppy fat’. Now they suffer from nascent child obesity instead. Paranoid parents look at chubby five-year olds and worry that they might be storing up serious health problems for the future.
I confess that when we have a house full of children my wife, Virginia, sometimes takes them off to McDonald’s or Burger King for their tea. Before giving the children what they see as a treat, she feels obliged to ring the other parents and check that it is OK. Most say yes. But often they will add a defensive rider such as: ‘Oh, she hasn’t been there for ages.’
Nobody wants to be known as a parent who stuffs their child with food that, as we all now know, is high in fat, sugar and salt. Feeding your children ‘junk food’ is not yet a crime. But it is increasingly looked on as a sin, with all the guilty feelings that implies.
We have been fed a glut of alarmist headlines including ‘Six-year-olds facing obese future’ while no less an authority than Sir John Krebs, chairman of the official Food Standards Agency, has alerted the nation to the childhood obesity ‘timebomb’, which means that our children will have shorter lives than us.
So is child obesity an epidemic threatening the health of an entire generation? And are we really putting young children at risk by letting them eat chocolate, burgers and chips? While some medical experts lead the crusade against ‘unhealthy’ food as the simple cure for child obesity, others are more circumspect.
A less black picture is painted by the Oxford-based Social Issues Research Centre. The nation’s average weight has been rising for the past 50 years but so, too, has our life expectancy (although some would counter that illnesses associated with obesity, such as type two diabetes, have also increased).
The countries with the highest rates of child obesity include Egypt, Algeria and Uzbekistan, where there is little sign of any junk food culture. Indeed, the rate of childhood obesity in the USA, the fast-food capital of the world, is comparable to that in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest nations on Earth.
‘Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon, but we need to be careful,’ says Jeya Henry, Professor of Human Nutrition at Oxford Brookes University. ‘Focusing on obesity in young children may be counterproductive. Childhood should be a time to enjoy and experiment with food.’
He is now running a study in a primary school with five and six-year-olds ‘and this is a six-year-old telling me that he has got fat thighs. That is sad, isn’t it? Terrible.’
Professor Henry points out that the known facts about the health effects of children’s weight are less certain than the doom-laden declarations about an obesity epidemic suggest. ‘Classification of obesity in children is a complicated process because they are growing in both height and weight. We use Body Mass Index to measure obesity in adults, so now we use it in children, too.
‘But that is not the same as saying that the health risks associated with BMI and obesity in the adult also apply in young children. The fact that you are like Billy Bunter does not mean that you have got the same health risks as being an obese adult. We simply do not know whether an eight-year-old chubby boy has an elevated risk,’ says Henry.
We do know, however, that there remain relatively few obese children, and that even they have no more than a 30 per cent likelihood of growing up to be an obese adult.
‘We should not ignore child obesity, but the focus should probably be on pre-adolescents, not the very young. Imagine that you have got a chubby five-year-old daughter. Is it not quite a travesty of our time that you proscribe her from eating some foods, because mummy says she will become a fat woman? That is what I object to – and the health crusaders who want to hammer food but do not discuss the importance of physical activity. If you are fat and fit, it is far less of a health risk.
‘Certainly if your children are, say, eight years old, with some puppy fat here and there, I would not lose any sleep over it.’
Dr Dee Dawson, the medical director at Rhodes Farm, a residential home for treatment of children with eating disorders in North London, concurs. ‘The majority of children do not have a weight problem and should not be put on a guilt trip,’ she insists.
‘There is a problem with child obesity but it is still a tiny proportion of kids. We should not be getting children obsessed about what they eat, how much fat and calories there is in their food, how they look. Most of them are perfectly fit and well.
‘Children do not have to be at one end of the spectrum or the other – obese or looking like those stick-thin models. You will know if your child is becoming obese.
‘They are getting teased, they are breathless, they can’t take part in games, they are embarrassed to take their clothes off. Trying to control a nation’s eating habits because of a few obese kids is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
‘When you make children feel guilty about food, that is when the problems begin. In any case, you will not stop children liking crisps, chocolate and ice-cream, or convince them that they want a celery stick instead,’ Dawson says.
‘Parents don’t need silly obsessive guidelines from the Government – 97 per cent of them are doing perfectly well by themselves.’ And middle-class parents obsessing about diet are the least likely to have obese children anyway, she says.
Henry agrees that we should ‘encourage children to experiment and share different types of food, and most let children be aware that food is part of a broader enjoyment of a culture. Why is it in France that they have much less obesity in children? ‘Children should be encouraged to enjoy food, indulge in it and celebrate it, especially as part of a family. Part of the way we learn about food skills and food identity is to eat together.’
In which case, the occasional collective outing to McDonald’s might not be such a sin after all – although happily our daughters now prefer a fat-filled family meal at the local Indian or Italian restaurant.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.
Want to join the conversation?
Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.