The United State is home to an increasing number of obese children (and, yes, fat babies). This has been described as a public health crisis, but obesity is always a deeply personal issue–wound up, as it almost always is–in issues of self image and worth. Plenty has been written and will be written about how children get fat and many parents will confront the issue, but the discussion that precedes and follows recognition isn’t always useful. Take all the words about childhood obesity in circulation and render them down; you’re left with a greasy, muddled pool of misinformation.
There’s plenty that people, including pediatricians, get wrong about the growing girth of America’s kids. Here are five pervasive myths about fat children that parents should be aware of right now.
Obesity Is Easy to Spot
It’s not. Not for pediatricians and certainly not for parents. One could argue that it’s getting slightly harder as overweight children become the norm, but there are still very recognizable signs and understandable standards.
“The idea that a child looks like his friends is not necessarily reassuring that they are not overweight or obese,” says Dr. Stephen Daniels, Pediatrician-in-Chief at Colorado Children’s Hospital and co-author of the clinical report The Role of the Pediatrician in Primary Prevention of Obesity. “That’s why we really recommend using the Body Mass Index (BMI) and percentiles.”
Daniels has found that when pediatricians struggle with other measurements, they generally turn to BMI and percentile charts to check themselves. If this is true for a physician with a trained eye, then how much more difficult is it for a parent to be an accurate judge of weight?
They’ll Grow Into It
Much of idea of growing into the extra pounds extends from the idea that chubby babies are healthy babies. At some point long ago, when infant mortality and malnutrition were often the same issue, a chubby kid was rightly perceived to have staved off the risk of starvation. That is no longer the case.
The idea of growing into the extra weight also misunderstands a natural process of weight gain linked to growth spurts. It is common that a kid might bulk up slightly before adding vertical height. But the weight that is gained is nominal. Modern children are starting out big and staying big even as they grow up.
“Weight gain early in life has a strong relationship to later obesity,” says Daniels. “We need to worry about diet and weight gain early.”
They Just Need More Activity
Exercise is really great for kids. That’s an absolute fact. But just getting an overweight kid to run around outside is not going to magically make them slim. That’s because exercise burns calories at a relatively slow rate. That rate is far slower than the rate at which a kid can cram calories into their body with nutrient poor, carbohydrate-heavy foods.
“This is a myth that’s actually promoted by some in the food industry,” Daniels explains. He doesn’t name brands, but he notes that “some unnamed soda companies” use the idea of activity being the solution to obesity to divert from the culpability of their product.
“It has to be about both exercise and diet,” Daniels explains.
It’s Just About Sugar
While soda companies might be attempting to distract from their big contribution to the childhood obesity epidemic. The problem won’t be solved by simply banning sugary drinks. Or sugar in general.
“It’s not a bad concept,” says Daniels. “But it’s really about everything you eat or drink each day. How much exercise you do and the balance of those.”
Daniels points to the idea of discretionary calories—those ones you can blow on junk if your day has contained an otherwise appropriate and reasonable caloric intake. “Even for very active kids the number of calories they have as discretionary calories is actually quite small. Hundreds of calories, not thousands of calories”
They Should Be Shamed Thin
Daniels notes that behaviorists agree that the right way to correct bad behavior is to praise the good behavior and ignore the problematic ones. But often the parental go to is a constant low-key haranguing. It’s a tactic unlikely to motivate a kid to lose weight.
“It’s very clear that nagging about behaviors or shaming are not the right way to go about this,” says Daniels. Instead he suggests support of good behaviors from family member willing to also make a change. Modeling the good behavior and a healthy lifestyle is often the best way to ensure kids are making the best choices.