The story starts on a French playground
“Vas-y” (go ahead) I say to the girl as she picks up the smushy ball to throw it on the cans. “Superbe!” I respond as she knocks the small pyramid of cans down in one swoop. As I stream my eyes over the large group of laughing 9 years olds, I can’t help but focus on one particular sweet smiley boy. He is a big French boy, very big in fact, obese. And I am here as a helper at my youngest two kid’s elementary school for the school’s games day. I scan this boy’s peers. This French lad stands out; he seems to be the only one with a weight issue.
My two girls know this boy. They are not in his class, but apparently he is labeled (affectionately) by kids at school as “le gross” (French word for the fat one). He stands out because he is big. He is one of the few obese kids in this small elementary school of 250 children. His bigger weight is a focus because he is different.
I close my eyes and remember the countless times at the beach, pool and lake in New Jersey and think how different my scan of French kids is compared to my scan in kids in America. This boy’s size would fit in with an American crowd of 9-year-old boys without a problem.
The statistics are overwhelming: an average group of 12 American children will have 2 children meeting the obese category and 2 others overweight.
Are what the eyes see void of bias?
I believe American parents are accustomed to seeing American children on the larger weight side. Does this distort our view on what is considered normal weight for our kids? Could we judge our child to be in a healthy weight because they fit into the crowd? They look the same as the other kids. It is the thin and very obese American kids that do stand out (I could argue also that some of the thinner looking kids are also normal weight, a normal weight like we could imagine thirty years ago). But those in the new American average, the normal weight-looking kids might actually meet what a doctor or dietitian could label as overweight. It is a subjective way to access weight, by looking with our eyes. We make judgments on what is normal and this complacency is an argument I put forth as one of the reasons for the increasing rates of childhood obesity in America.
Just as this French boy’s big weight made him the focus of being different, contrastively I argue that in America the childhood overweight and obesity epidemic has made us out of tune on what we subjectively judge as what is thin, normal and overweight in children.
How does this subjective way to access weight add to the child obesity problem?
I think back to my experiences as a dietitian counseling parents on the WIC program and the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. I remember several times informing parents that their child is overweight or is quickly heading in that direction. Too often I heard,
“But my child is thin!”
“No, I don’t believe you”
“But that is just baby fat, they will outgrow it”
It was a surprise to some parents to receive the news that their child really isn’t a healthy weight. Even a shock to some, because to them their child just fit into society’s normal.
But it is essential to look at both objective and subjective parameters when assessing a child’s weight. And unfortunately we have a small window of time to make the right assessments. If we wait too long we could quickly find our child moving too fast into a larger weight.
As a parent myself, I know I also make subjective assessments based on my kid’s peers. It seems hard not to do this. However as a health professional, I am also trained to look objectively at a child’s weight to judge what is “healthy normal”.
With these following statistics on childhood obesity I believe it is imperative to take an active and early part in our child’s health:
- Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years.
- In the 1970s, 5 percent of U.S. children ages 2 to 19 were obese.
- In 2008 nearly 17 percent of children were obese (one out of six children).
- Currently one of three children is overweight or obese.
To understand more on how you as a parent can take an active part in catching your child’s weight issue early, stay tuned for part 2 on “The New Thin is the Old Normal: Childhood is No Exception.”
I will discuss more on:
- What are the subjective and objective measures for a child’s weight?
- What are the critical periods of a child’s life to keep a close track of their weight?
If you have any feedback or questions, please do not hesitate to shout them out below in the “leave a reply” section. If you like this article or know someone who would benefit from reading it, I would appreciate it you could please share it with your favorite social media or email. Finally, if you are interested in knowing more on the French culture and an international view on health, download your copy of “10 Simple Ways to Eat Like the French without Having a Food Snob Attitude” by clicking here and subscribing to BrightonYourHealth. By subscribing you will also know when part 2 is published via an email in your mailbox!
If you would like to read other articles in this series on “Why the New Thin is the Old Normal”, click on:
All the best in health,