Should Obese 7-Year-Olds Be Put on a Diet?

The author of a controversial new book says more parents need to be willing to be unpopular if we want to get kids to a healthy weight.

Author Dara-Lynn Weiss first wrote about her controversial decision to put her young daughter on a diet for ‘Vogue’ magazine. (Author photo courtesy of Juliana Sohn)
Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics.

We all know the staggering statistics about childhood obesity: Over the past 30 years, rates have doubled for kids and tripled for adolescents, and about one-third of American children are overweight or obese. What's a lot less clear is how we solve this problem.

There has been encouraging news recently in major U.S. cities that rates of obesity in kids are falling, but we still have a long way to go. And unlike obesity in adults, kids are far more complicated, largely because they're still growing and developing and they often can't choose the foods they eat or the beverages they drink. 

Which means that parents have to be at the center of any solution to the epidemic. Dara-Lynn Weiss first wrote about her decision to put her seven-year-old daughter Bea on a diet in an article for Vogue magazine. The piece sparked controversy when it appeared in 2012, and Weiss just published a book, The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet—A Memoir, explaining her and her family's experiences in getting Bea to a healthy weight:

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TakePart: You write in the book that it was when your daughter Bea was six that you “confronted reality.” Can you sum up what was going through your mind as a mother of an overweight child? Many parents have trouble facing that their child is overweight, or even obese.

Dara-Lynn Weiss: There are countless reasons why a child will suffer as a result of being overweight, but at the same time, no parent wants to make an issue out of this if they don’t have to. I didn’t feel qualified to make the determination as to when Bea needed intervention; at what point she went from being simply heavy to being unhealthily obese. I really relied on doctors to let me know when that moment had come, and I was willing to hear it and respond to it. It’s tough, because I adore my daughter and never want her to feel she is anything other than absolutely perfect. But yet I had to explain to her that she needed to lose weight. It’s an incredibly complicated subject to broach with a child.

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You note that, in the media at least, there are no real examples of how to parent an overweight child. You love them at any weight, of course, but you want to save them from insensitive comments (or worse) and you want them to be healthy, above all else. What advice would you share with other parents that you wish you’d had while going through this?

I would hope parents realize that even though obesity presents its own set of unique challenges, it is ultimately a parenting issue and a medical issue, and we should approach it as such. So much of raising children is about making tough choices, about doing what’s right even when our kids don’t like it, and it makes our lives more difficult. But we do it every day as parents, and we need to approach obesity with the same willingness to be “the heavy” as we do so many other areas involving our kids’ well-being.

Why did you decide to share your story, and Bea’s? You’ve been likened to the Tiger Mother by putting your daughter on a diet at the age of seven. What do you say to your critics?

Both the Tiger Mother and I were portrayed as overly strident, strict, even abusive. I think there’s a definite similarity in how people responded to our stories, particularly in the rush to criticize and judge and not see the nuances and love and self-doubt that characterized both of our approaches to doing what we felt was best for our children.

I think there’s an essential difference in our stories, however, in that my child was suffering from a very real threat to her health. I had to intervene decisively and fairly unyieldingly, whereas if you’re dealing with a child’s academic achievement or artistic development, one could argue that the need to get results is not as urgent.

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What I appreciated most about your story is that it points up the complexity of  childhood obesity. There is a complicated relationship between food (and drinks), physical activity, genetics, and emotional factors—all mixed up in a human being that is still developing. What don’t you think most people understand about childhood obesity that you wish they did?

Exactly what you said—that it’s complicated. Before I had an obese child, I had the whole epidemic figured out: Kids were obese because they ate junk food and didn’t exercise and their parents neglected their children’s health. And if they swapped out processed foods for fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains and rode their bikes every day, they’d be healthy. It’s just not nearly that simple. Every overweight or obese child got there in his/her own way, and the path to health will be just as individualized. And if parents think that our society is set up to encourage and support families struggling with obesity, they’re in for quite a shock.

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You were criticized, too, for making Cool Whip Free, Diet Coke, and some processed foods part of your kids’ diets. How did you respond?

I totally understand that criticism. I share the popular disdain for processed foods and artificial sweeteners, and they were things I avoided giving my children. But it can be hard to keep a child motivated to stay on an eating plan that is focused around portion control and calorie limits. Bea has an incredibly well-balanced diet, one that I work hard on providing, and of which I am proud: lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, home-cooked meals, whole grains.

And in moderation, I like to give her things that help her stay on track and feel less “different.” If she’s at a restaurant with her cousins and the other kids are drinking Shirley Temples, I like to be able to offer her a diet soda. Once a day, after school, she gets 100 calories of pretty much whatever she wants, even if it’s a processed, artificial, sugary snack. These choices comprise a tiny fraction of her overall diet, but they stay within the parameters of her diet, keep her motivated, and reinforce the idea that eating and weight management are about balance and choices, and not deprivation and exclusion. 

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At TakePart we like to give our audience ways to do something about the causes they care most about— and lowering, and eventually eradicating, rates of childhood obesity is one of those key causes. From your vantage point as a mother, what do you think should be done?

My experience with my daughter’s obesity led me to believe that a major problem we have as a society is an unwillingness to deal with this issue. We don’t want to talk about it with our kids. We are uncomfortable with the idea of children needing to lose weight. We don’t want to make the difficult changes that often are the only way to help our children.

I know that in my daughter’s case, we helped her overcome obesity in ways that are surprisingly unconventional: talking about it openly, intervening consistently and strictly, and working with her to actually lose weight. I do think that, for some children, a weight-loss program is the right way to go. The more subtle lifestyle changes that are currently recommended aren’t always enough to combat childhood obesity. Developing and providing access to healthful, reasonable weight-loss programs for kids would be extremely useful to many families. It’s also important to change people’s perceptions about obesity and weight loss for children, so that acknowledging the problem and making efforts to reverse it are not considered so shameful.

To our readers: What do you think would help most to lower the numbers of overweight and obese kids? What role do parents play? Are parents doing enough?

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