The Overweight Child

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Dara-Lynn Weiss, a Manhattan mother of two who has recently become famous for posing in Vogue with her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, newly thin after a one-year weight loss diet, is under fire in the press and blogosphere for her methods and for showing and telling all about them. Just Google “dara-lynn weiss and bea in vogue,” and you’ll see.

I’m not a fan of her methods (reportedly she badgered and occasionally embarrassed her child). The Vogue piece (not online — you’ll have to buy the print issue) seems self-serving to me, as does Weiss’s book contract.  But helping her medically overweight child lose weight? For that, I applaud her.

I was an overweight child until a six-inch growth spurt between the ages of 12 and 13 got my weight in line with my height, finally.  The photograph shows me at 11 or 12, with my youngest siblings, Emily and Brian, on a family vacation. The horizontal stripes don’t make me look plump; I was plump. In fact, whenever my other two siblings, Michael and Sally, called me fat names, my mother would say, “She’s not fat. She’s pleasantly plump.”  I bought my clothes in the Sears “Pretty Plus” department.

Flash forward 30 or so years. I have three children, and the older two, now teenagers, have already gone through what I did as a child. When they were younger, their weight was too great for their height, and their BMI was medically elevated. My youngest child, who recently turned 12, is still struggling, and we struggle with her, as we did with the older kids. For years, the five of us have been regularly seeing a family nutritionist and doing our best to keep junk food out of the house, fill half our dinner plates with salad or vegetables, and resist the ease of the school lunch program by packing lunches daily.  All of this is a total drag, and we do not always make the best choices, comply 100%, or do this with a smile on our faces. We do, however, stick with health (not moral) messages.

None of our kids have diabetes, but with Type 1 diabetes in my family (one brother also has it) and Type 2 diabetes in my husband’s family, this is a real threat. The high BMI must be addressed like the medical problem that it is.  Yes, in the developed world, being overweight is often seen more as a moral or aesthetic issue than it is a health one, but this should not distract us from the fact that weight, whether too high or too low, is a dimension of our health status.

When my brother was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 13 (after weeks of unexplained weight loss and excessive thirst), my parents treated it as the serious problem it is by rigorously providing my brother with the diet, insulin, activity, and health care he needed. There was no question that they would do this, and there was no moral dimension or controversy to their approach. Was my brother always happy? My parents? Probably not. It’s hard to deal with a health problem that is confounded by natural human appetites and remain always cheerful.

I think it may be even harder today than it was in my 1970s childhood, when everyday life was not as saturated with food images, food choices, and food temptations. It often is an us-against-the-world feeling when we’re trying to help our children grow up into healthy bodies and outside our door is (literally) a Starbucks, a bakery, snacks for sale even in the pharmacy, and a school where every child’s birthday is celebrated in the classroom and cupcakes.

About Dara-Lynn Weiss about her book contract, I wrinkle my brow and wonder, “How will this affect the child?” About her inconsistent messages to her daughter, I would ask, “Couldn’t you aim for a more even keel?” But about helping her child achieve a healthy weight, I’d raise my right hand, slap hers, and say, “Right on, sister. Right on.”

Comments (10)

  1. Ellen H. Ullman, MSW at

    It’s a very slippery slope not to trigger disordered eating.  Young girls take their mothers words to heart the judgment involved can be very damaging.  I think it’s best to live by example, provide nutritious and delicious foods, engage children in the food preparation and educate about mass media marketing to children for the benefit of the corporation not the benefit of the human being.  One of the most beautiful books written for people with disordered eating is Eating in the Light of the Moon by Dr. Anita Johnston.  I encourage every mother with a daughter to read this book and learn to guide your daughters to embrace who they are and the changes their bodies go through.  I see here she has something new out as well.  I’ve read Eating In the Light of the Moon more than once – it’s powerfully good!
    http://dranitajohnston.com/blog/2011/11/15/pandoras-box 

    With love and respect,
    Ellen 

  2. Thank you, Ellen, for the link to Dr. Johnston’s work.
    I agree that this is a slippery slope, and I also feel that all children must learn from any parent — a mother or a father — that they are lovable and wonderful as they are.

    Living by example is ideal, in the way you describe. And yet it is also possible to address eating, appetite, and weight as a health issue (and not a beauty one). That I might call walking a tight rope.

  3. Kelly at

    I wholeheartedly agree that as parents we should model good eating habits for our children, but I have to correct the misconception you’ve laid out regarding Type 1 Diabetes. T1D is neither caused nor prevented by diet. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas no longer produces insulin. An infection or another trigger may bring on this autoimmune response.

  4. Jane Kokernak
    Jane Kokernak at

    I didn’t mean to imply that Type 1 diabetes is caused or prevented by diet, although I see how I might have implied this by associating it in the same sentence with Type 2 and diet. Thanks for pointing this out, Kelly.
    To be more clear, I would say that one motivation for helping our children attain and maintain a healthy weight is so that, if they are someday diagnosed with diabetes of either type, the lifestyle and medical changes would be easier if their baseline weight was in a good place.
    And, of course, one way to delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes is through a rigorous approach to diet and exercise. However, even here, Type 2 has a genetic component, and some people are simply more predisposed to it than others. I once heard a talk at the Joslin Diabetes Center, where I get my health care, that claimed that people who are going to get Type 2 are going to get it *at some point* in their lives. Healthier people can delay its onset.

    This doesn’t mean my children are definitely in line for either disease. We simply don’t know. However, my family’s experience with Type 1 and Type 2 makes us extra aware of the importance of nutrition and weight management.

  5. Sarah at

    I’m afraid that explanation, that going into a “possible” dx of Type 1 with good baseline weight is ridiculous. By the time most of our kids were dxd, they were literally starving to death. 
    If possible you should rewrite this as it pertains to Type 1. None of it is a good fit with your argument. 

  6. Sarah at

    well, its certainly encouraging. we all would love to lose weight just like dara! even though, im nutritionist i still sometimes fail to keep my weight under control and stick to healthy diet. However we have found ways and means to over come this, like getting on organic natural sweetener to substitute sugar, this really works well and supports your efforts in controlling weight, there are few brands in the market, but i think Zyvia is the only organic brand. We have been taking it for quite sometime now. Its pretty good!

  7. Jane Kokernak
    Jane Kokernak at

    Sarah One, my argument is not about Type 1 diabetes. My argument is about weight as a health problem that should be treated as such. I use diabetes as an example in support of my argument about what it means to seriously address a health or medical problem with health or medical interventions. My experience with diabetes — my own Type 1, my brother’s Type 1, and my husband’s family’s Type 2 — makes me aware of what it takes to address a difficult problem like the overweight child, and it also may make me sensitive to fears about my own children’s (future) health that the critics of Dara-Lynn Weiss, who put her daughter on a diet, are not sensitive to.
    This is a blog post that conveys my take on things. I try to be as accurate as possible, within my knowledge base. My main purpose in writing this is not to illuminate Type 1 diabetes, but to illuminate my thinking about children and weight, especially my children and their weight. I do not think it is “ridiculous” to want my children to have as good health habits and as good health (including weight!) as possible, should my fears (about Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes) come true someday.

    Like your children, my brother did experience weight loss in advance of his diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 13. That’s a really good point that you make, and I slightly edited the blog post above to reflect this. I, however, did not experience any weight loss in advance of my diagnosis of Type 1 at the age of 26, so there may be some variance to this.

  8. Sarah at

    Thank you for the reply. What I found “ridiculous” was this, “To be more clear, I would say that one motivation for helping our children attain and maintain a healthy weight is so that, if they are someday diagnosed with diabetes of either type, the lifestyle and medical changes would be easier if their baseline weight was in a good place.”   

    Everyone should aim for healthy habits and healthy attitudes toward food. But by your position perhaps we should all engage in an exercise regimen to strengthen the upper body in the event of lower body paralysis, or learn to eat gluten free in preparation for a future run in with celiac.  

    Dragging the specter of Type 1 into an argument for teaching otherwise healthy kids to eat well and maintain a healthy weight strikes me as illogical, even if there is a family history.  
     

  9. Maureen at

    Coming from a family with a long history of Type 1 diabetes (myself, 2 maternal uncles, 2 maternal 1st cousins) and Type 2 diabetes (and not everyone who is/was Type 2 in my family was overweight, but did have type 2… no it wasn’t a case of late onset type 1).  And coming from the perspective my monetarily compensated career outside the home is physical rehab for those who have experience major illness/injury where they can no longer walk/feed/dress/bathe/otherwise care for themselves, I agree with the statement that if you are healthy(er) going into an illness or injury, your recovery is much easier, quicker, and more complete than the person who is overweight and in general does not have healthy habits/lifestyle.  Those that are used to eating a donut and a can of Coke for breakfast seem to have a much more difficult time than those who have a bowl of Rice Crispies and glass of juice (now that might be too many carbs for a Type 1 to handle at breakfast without a huge spike, but it would be less of a leap to go from cereal and juice to eggs and a V8).
    I try to have my children eat a healthy diet and exercise.  Both so they feel good and are healthy now, and so they know HOW to be healthy in the future, AND their body (if it is God forbid challenged) has a good starting point.

  10. Greg Suda at

    To be a parent is not an easy role. A parent should be a good role model or a good leader to their children. Children tends to follow on what they see from their parents. Healthy eating and living always starts at home, having a health problem is not easy. First stage diabetes is still curable but if we disregard it, it could lead us to death. We should monitor our diet and health, prevention is still better than cure.

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