I’m ashamed to admit that years ago, I was an enabler to my then-overweight child. I made excuses for why my son was heavier than his peers. I blamed genetics, since his father was an overweight child who lost weight once he became a teenager. I never considered it a problem that my son ate adult-size portions. I told myself that he was hungry. I was in deep denial that my son, or I, had a problem with food.
When my son was five years old, his pediatrician scolded me for his weight. I felt defensive. I was indignant that I would be blamed for something I viewed as hereditary. After the appointment, I assured my child that he wasn’t overweight and that the doctor didn’t know our body types.
My husband, an active-duty Marine, was great about getting both of our sons outside whenever he could. The only problem was that he was often deployed, or away at training, and exercise was inconsistent at best.
By six, my son was teased by his peers. To soothe him, I’d take him for an ice cream, or pop a bag of buttery popcorn. I used food as a way to express love, and didn’t see how I was exacerbating the problem. In my family, food was the answer to any obstacle life tossed our way.
By ten, my son talked about dieting. He longed to look like his friends, who were slim-waisted and bony-armed. I promised him that the weight would come off, that he was just like his father, and that if he just waited a bit longer, he would see.
Occasionally, the weight would come off. When my husband was home for long stretches, we would go for hikes, spend hours at the pool or beach, and play outside. My son fell in love with sports, and we made it a priority to keep him enrolled with seasonal teams.
By thirteen, my son had lost and regained the weight twice. Our frequent military moves meant activities were interrupted while we adapted to our new environment. One night, my son said to me that he hated being overweight. He asked me to please help him. He wanted to fast, then eat nothing but fruit. He’d read about extreme diets and was desperate to try anything.
His words broke my heart, and my wall of excuses. I realized that my contribution to his problem had been the way I paired food with emotions. Happy, sad, it didn’t matter, we ate. I made a commitment then and there to help my son however I could.
After our talk, I read voraciously. I wanted to arm myself with knowledge. The first change I made was with groceries. I stopped buying snack foods that were loaded with empty calories, and amped up our fruit and veggie stockpile. I also cut many processed foods from our diets.
We went to a nutritionist to learn more. The advice was simple, but powerful. Divide our plates into four sections, and use one for meat, one for carbohydrates, and two for fruits and veggies. She also advised us to use salad plates instead of dinner plates, and even suggested buying smaller forks to eat our meals.
We made outdoor time a priority, and my son fell in love with long-distance running. He put a dry-erase board on his bedroom wall and wrote down an exercise schedule. We started packing his school lunches and eating healthier dinners. In less than a year, my son dropped thirty-five pounds and has remained lean, muscular and athletic ever since.
As a mother, one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn was to model a healthy relationship with food. I couldn’t teach my son without first teaching myself how to separate mealtime from emotions. My son’s story has a happy ending, but had I not made the necessary changes, maybe that wouldn’t be the case.
As parents, it is so important that we understand our role in childhood obesity and educate ourselves on how to stop enabling our children. It’s vital that we listen to our children’s doctors and to get support. While childhood obesity is not always related to diet and exercise, it is still important to model healthy food values to our children.