Tough Love for an Obese Child

Q: How do you convey to a child that you are not serving the food he wants right now because it is not healthy (ideally without becoming the meany he would think I was)? In this example, he wanted waffles (with lots of syrup) or pancakes or doughnuts. The child is already extremely obese. He is sensitive to his weight, so I sure wouldn’t want to point out the connection about eating this and becoming even fatter, also to not make him feel bad about himself. I know when I want some dessert (that’s what I call waffles and doughnuts), I wouldn’t stop or even care now because of some consequences later. How do I get him to eat healthy without ruining our relationship or his self-esteem?

A: You’re not going to like me for this answer. I’m just going to quote your question, changing just a couple of words:

How do you convey to a child that you are not giving him the heroin he wants right now because it is not healthy (ideally without becoming the meany he would think I was)? The child is already extremely strung-out. He is sensitive to his sweating, nausea, dry mouth, vomiting and itching, so I sure wouldn’t want to point out the connection about taking heroin and becoming even more uncomfortable, also to not make him feel bad about himself. I know when I want some drugs I wouldn’t stop or even care now because of some consequences later. How do I get him to stop injecting heroin without ruining our relationship or his self-esteem?

After coming up with that horrible analogy, I have to defend it. Obviously, waffles and doughnuts are not the same as heroin in every respect. They’re legal, for example, so you can get them inexpensively without risking imprisonment. What about addictive? A toxic diet comprised largely of sugar and fat and white flour is at least as addictive as refined drugs. After all, with drugs you can quit. You can’t quit eating. You can shift the nature and quality of what you eat, but with toxic food universally celebrated and available everywhere we turn, the recovering food addict’s life is a neverending struggle.

You write that your child is sensitive about his weight. Can you see a spiral in which his food addictions are fueled by bad feelings about his weight, leading to a vicious cycle? If the other children in his life aren’t already making him feel bad about being fat, they will soon. Choices bring consequences, and it’s not within your power to prevent those consequences for him. You can mask some of them, perhaps delay others, but outcomes suppressed have a way of emerging with a vengeance.

Let me ask you a few practical questions:

  • What are the limits of your power?
  • How much control do you have over your child’s total environment? Is your partner with you, neutral, or against you?
  • How old is your child?
  • Is his toxic food addiction simply the result of habit, or are there underlying emotional issues he needs to address and resolve that are unrelated to food and weight?

This answer isn’t so much about giving you advice on what to do; there’s plenty of that in the rest of this blog, and in my upcoming book, Eating to Beat the Odds (write me if you’d like to look at a reviewer’s copy, available in about two months), as well as other wonderful websites, including DrFuhrman Online, and Connie Bennett’s excellent Sugar Shock Blog.

Rather, I want to reframe your hesitation to act. How motivated are you to making a difference in this child’s life? The long-term consequences of heroin addiction are well known: collapsed veins, liver disease, weak immune system, respiratory failure, breathing difficulties, pneumonia, bacterial infections, infections of heart lining and valves, arthritis and other rheumatologic problems, risk of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS from sharing needles.

The long-term consequences of a toxic diet are also well-known: cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, MS, macular degeneration, IBS, gout, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, weak immune system, bacterial and viral infections, liver disease, and many more.

Not so different…

You are limited by your motivation to act and your control over the situation. Somewhere, at the intersection of those two lines, you can act. Do it with love, only love. Not judgment. Only compassion; not disgust. Only in joy; not in constriction. Can you give the gift of responsibility without the baggage of blame? It’s a fine line, and requires total clarity about your motives and your goals.

Practical Considerations

  • Get the toxic food out of the house. As long as you’re in charge of shopping, you can simply eliminate 90% of all temptation by clearing out your fridge and pantry.
  • Don’t force him to eat anything. Put out a selection of healthy foods, but don’t insist on consumption. When he’s hungry, he’ll eat. He won’t starve himself.
  • Engage him to design his own healthy menu. Go through cookbooks with him and see what appeals to him. Take him shopping. Make cooking together a fun activity.
  • Gradualize him from unhealthy to healthy versions of the same dishes. Examples:
    • whole grain waffles
    • artificial syrup to sauteed fruit topping
    • 100% white rice to 90% white/10% brown, all the way to 100% brown rice
  • Check out the Recipes section of this blog for some kid-friendly healthy foods

Good luck!

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One Response to “Tough Love for an Obese Child”

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  1. David Eller says:

    I liked your reply to the mom about her fat son who wanted waffles with syrup.

    Here’s a resource you might really like.:

    Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/ Fake Food World by David Ludwig and Suzanne Rostler

    David Ludwig, MD has done some of the research that proves eating badly makes people fat & sick — & why — and his book is valuable for parents — & for fat adults.

    But he also helps parents with kids like the one in that email.

    And, you and/or your readers might find his book a good resource.

    He also might find your website & comments useful for the parents and kids he works with. I think you have better persuasion skills and persuasion related advice for parents than he does.

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