Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Is childhood obesity proof that not all parents love their children?"

Dr. Michael Katz came to my attention in April because of a thread he started at TED.com, entitled: Is the Childhood Obesity epidemic proof that not all parents love their children?

I thought it was a joke at first, but it turns out Katz is a doctor who runs the--let's get this out of the way now--unfortunately named website EatingKids.com, the K of which is seemingly capitalized to discourage the sense that the site is about the best way to sautee toddlers (I'm not sure it helps). EatingKids is devoted to childhood eating issues, "created not only to provide information, but to create a collaborative community of parents, doctors and educators who could fuel each others' passion to eliminate Eating Disorders & Childhood Obesity."

The dude seems well-intentioned, and the site includes, for example, a lot of good ideas about managing the onslaught of damaging media imagery for young girls with eating issues. But the parts of the site devoted to childhood obesity demonstrate the same thinking that fueled the TED question:
Obesity is a disease. It is also totally avoidable. While there do exist some genetic and thyroid deficiencies that can contribute to obesity – these are extremely rare.

As a rule: you show me an obese child and I’ll show you parents who are not doing their job.
Katz's question--can parents of obese children actually love them, given that they are fat?--makes a certain horrible sense in the context of our culture's current understanding of fat and especially children who are fat. It is the natural next thought in a world where body size is always and ever the result of what you do or don't do, and what you teach your children to do and do for them. If fat is a failing, then fat children are their parents' failure. If fat = death, then parents who 'let' their kids be fat are killing them. They do not love them.

So Katz tries it out on TED. Here are some of Katz's comments, taken from the thread. He wrestles with the do-they-love-them question as he considers the fact that this cannot all be an issue of information/knowledge:
Considering how many children are obese in the USA we can safely assume that not ALL the parents are ignorant of these factors. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most parents DO understand them - which is why I asked the question in the first place.
- - -
First, I TOTALLY reject the notion that a parent could truly LOVE their child, yet somehow NOT be able to feed the child a healthy diet on most days. ALL the stories you hear about fruits/veggies being more expensive than fast food are lies and I can prove it on any trip to the supermarket. I don't mean to be aggressive here, but I am truly SICK of that kind of false "meme."
- - -
I see this same thing happen time after time in these online "debates" and I'm beginning to get annoyed. I said what I said and there's no reason to cook up some false extrapolation about what I said. So, let me be clear: Based on what I've seen in my life, as a physician and as a person on this earth, I do not believe that all parents really love their children. I was interested to know if Childhood Obesity could be seen as a proof of that. That's about as far as I wanted to take it.
- - -
...If you love someone I believe you will stop [harmful] behavior . . . the abusive husband who beats his wife out of frustration with his life could still actually and truly love her. I think that is NOT true. So if a mom feeds her kids pizza and potato chips and the like on a daily basis, with the kids growing ever fatter (and sicker), can we say she really loves them? I think not.
Not long after the TED discussion, Katz posted this page on his site under pretty much the same headline/title--"Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Do all parents love their kids?"--incorporating some of the responses he got at TED (including, in a few cases, quoting them word-for-word with no attribution in his "points," "questions," and "answers"). He quotes, by way of answer to his question, a line from somebody else's post: "It’s not as easy as yes or no."

But it's clear he still does not seem to know what to think about it all--how to reconcile his ideas and the facts. I think he's honestly trying to understand it. He goes back to the idea that people just do not know what they need to know. He wonders if perhaps institutions should step in if parents "would not" feed their children properly. In one of his points he wonders, if a parent's schedule is contributing to their child's obesity, whether or not they should quit:
Assuming that one’s finances make it possible, then “Yes,” quitting is probably reasonable. This may seem extreme, but my answer is “So is diabetes" [emph his]. Love for your children requires you to make certain sacrifices if they are really in the child’s best interest. In fact, if the decisions you make really ARE best for your child, then they probably shouldn’t be considered sacrifices at all. If you love someone I believe you will stop hurtful behaviors, and leaving your kids a frozen pizza as an after-school snack IS a hurtful behavior. So…if a mom feeds her kids pizza and potato chips and the like on a daily basis, with the kids growing ever fatter (and sicker), and this is a result of the fact that she’s at work and doesn’t have time to cook a healthy, nutritious meal, then can we say she’s really doing the best for her child? I think not.
Dr. Katz seems to have created an extremely narrow definition of healthy and normal at EatingKids.com. I have to wonder how his treatment and understanding of eating disorders is informed by his understanding of obesity.

And it may "make sense" in our world, but it is still appalling to see this guy wrestle with the idea of the amount of love in a child's life--love--trying to get his mind around and explain body differences. Let me answer the question for him, by the way: no, actually, childhood obesity is not proof that not all parents love their children. It's proof of a lot of things, including socio-economics and genetics, which Katz dismisses, as well as food choices. If the standard statistic that one in three children is obese is true, that means he is honestly wondering if one-third of American children are not loved. That right there--the fact that he is positing the question at all--should tell him this is more complicated than the factors he sees at hand. He's answered his question already. The fact that he persists in it at all seems too appalling and dehumanizing to believe. But that is the world we live in.

Katz has also written a book about orthorexia; would be interesting to check it out.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think it's more about crappy convenience foods flooding the marketplace and being advertised so heavily to parents and kids alike. Happy Meals, "fruit snacks," Sunny Delight, cookies...HFCS and excessive salt jacking up all sorts of foods they have no place in. A family has to rebel against the entire processed food industry, against grocery stores that get inducements to stock more and more crap, against restaurants with giant greasy salty sweet portions.

    Many of the obese kids are in working-class families, and no, one parent CANNOT give up an income to spend more time cooking from scratch.

  3. I don't think love has anything to do with it. A parent's love for their child is unconditional. Many children are naturally bigger just like adult are, but there are definitely plenty of parents who overfeed their children. I've seen those Maury episodes (and I know someone who went on there for that) and going from my own observations, many parents just don't know how to say NO to their kids, or they will feed them as a way to get them to stop crying. It's sad but a lot of parents do this. Just yesterday while grocery shopping, I watched as a mom bribed her son with a promise for ice cream so he would stop whining.

    I also agree with Orange that the foods that are available to us (In America specifically) aren't as healthy as they could be. All of these quick and easy meals are the main choice nowadays since both parents in a household have to work full time to support the family. Eating healthily takes time to prepare and lots of awareness. The average America's eating habits are pretty poor.