‘Whatever next: fat babies? Fat fetuses?’

A nutrition expert slams the academics who think parents should stop saying ‘puppy fat’ and instead say ‘obese’.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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‘Parents can’t see their children are obese’, said one newspaper headline. ‘“It’s just puppy fat”: how parents deceive themselves about their overweight children’, said another. The idea that parents cannot spot ‘unhealthy’ fatness in their kids, and the underlying notion that these chubby children will go on to become obese adults, did not amuse Jeya Henry, professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University. ‘When are we going to stop? Fat babies? Fat fetuses?’ he asked, incredulously.

spiked spoke to Professor Henry following the results (and media promotion) of a study carried out by researchers at Newcastle University in England. Dr Angela Jones, leading the research, weighed and measured over 600 children aged between six and eight. She then asked the children’s parents whether they thought their kids were ‘very underweight’, ‘underweight’, ‘normal’, ‘overweight’ or ‘very overweight’. And here comes what the researchers believe is the damning statistic: of those parents with overweight or obese children, 70 per cent described their kids as ‘normal’ (1).

That’s right, fans of the mind-meltingly obvious: parents, if asked, choose not to denigrate their own children. Next up: research reveals that parents with children who prefer ‘kicking a ball round a park to playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2’ choose not to label their kids as ‘a bit dim’.

Unfortunately, this study into parental attitudes to overweight children contains no satirical intent. It is deadly serious: parents of overweight and obese children are deceiving themselves, apparently. Speaking at the Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam, Dr Jones said that the parental recognition of obesity is ‘essential to its prevention’. Joining Jones in this parent-baiting chorus were researchers from the University Medical Centre in Groningen. ‘Over three-quarters of parents do not recognise their overweight or obese child as being such’, they chided. ‘Therefore they do not worry and will not take action.’ (2)

In other words, by not treating their kids as medical problems, by not viewing them in terms of their weight-to-height ratio, by using loving terms like ‘puppy fat’ instead of medical terms like ‘obesity’, parents are abrogating their responsibility as parents and contributing to a global health problem. This is not harmless parental delusion, it seems: it is dangerous and irresponsible.

The implications are clear. Where parents are currently content to ignore a bit of youthful chubbiness in their children, they ought to be seeing potential medical problems. What they might foolishly dismiss as ‘puppy fat’ is actually a morbid portent of waddling, heart-straining later-life catastrophe.

But are parents actually deceiving themselves? Professor Henry doesn’t think so. ‘There is no evidence’, he told spiked, ‘that an overweight young person, whether six, seven or eight years old, will become an overweight adult’. Though Henry is keen ‘not to belittle the issues of obesity and overweight’, he said we need to ‘keep these issues in proportion’.

Unfortunately, the infernal churn of well-funded research and the resulting scaremongering headlines make it harder to take a rational view of the issue of obesity. In fact, it is precisely a sensible view of the issue that is being undermined. One parent responded to the question of whether their child was overweight with the perfectly reasonable response: ‘Puppy fat comes to mind. I think you’ve got to be very careful – quite often they have a growth spurt and they’re skinny again.’ The study quoted this not as the response of a normal, loving parent – who doesn’t want to give their child a complex about being somehow ‘ill’ – but as the deluded mutterings of a child-rearing ignoramus.

For Henry, however, appealing to the notion of ‘puppy fat’ is perfectly sane. ‘These parents are behaving in a very sensible way. Speaking as a parent myself, I’m not going to spend sleepless nights worrying that my child is going to turn into Billy Bunter.’

Looking for the origins of adult obesity in the young is not just absurd – it also threatens to damage the normal, loving relationship a parent has with their child. Instead of seeing them as bundles of joy, parents are asked to view their kids as rolls of joyless medical-sounding anxiety. Objectifying childhood in this way, as a potential prelude to future ill-health, estranges parent from child and child from parent. The surreptitious morality of health intervenes between them, turning the overweight child into a potential object of physical revulsion, and the parent into the guilt-ridden executor of an authority external to them, whether it’s the Department of Health or their retinue of obesity experts.

In the face of this medical onslaught, it’s worth reasserting, as Professor Henry reminds us, that when it comes to children, parents really do know best.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said we should stop bullying fat kids and declared that childhood obesity is not a form of abuse. Rob Lyons was sick of the endless diet of government intervention. Patrick Basham and John Luik examined new research which taught obesity hysterics a lesson. Elsewhere, they attacked the proposals to remove children from obese households. Peter Marsh asked what’s behind the sensationalist child obesity headlines. Jennie Bristow reported the findings of a spiked poll showing that parents should be responsible for children’s diets. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) Parents can’t tell when kids are obese and overweight, Softpedia, 8 May 2009

(2) ‘It’s just puppy fat’: How parents deceive themselves about their overweight children, Daily Mail, 8 May 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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