Bigger isn’t better

The trouble with a chubby child

HERE WE GO again, another “evangelist” preaching on the sinful epidemic of childhood obesity. When is enough enough?

Never! In the mid–20th century, scientists were asked to describe what man would look like in the 22nd century. We were described as having a large head on a small body. How wrong they were.

Did you know that the total number of fat cells in the body is determined within the first two years of life? After that there is no increase in the number of fat cells, only an increase in how much they are filled. Therefore the foundation for a tendency toward obesity is laid down very early in life. If we could prevent overweight infants and toddlers, we could probably prevent a great deal of obesity later in life.

But what if your child is only “a little” overweight?

Let us say, for example, your child’s ideal weight is 100 pounds. However, your child weighs 115 pounds. How significant is this? Well, carrying an extra 15 pounds around every day is equivalent to carrying and extra 105 pounds every week. This means every week your child is carrying himself or herself for 24 hours. To put it another way, each week, for a whole day, your child has 25- pound weights strapped around arms and legs. Furthermore, for every excess pound carried, the heart, with each beat, has to pump through an extra mile of blood vessels and lymphatics. Now that is a lot of work!

Of course, many infants and toddlers are overweight to varying degrees. Not all are going to end up being obese. Which children should we worry about?

The answer is in the family history. Look for a history of obesity or close family members with diabetes or hypertension, with early heart disease or cerebral vascular accidents and, lastly, if there’s a family history of a lipid problem.

Children with a family history of lipid problems, in particular, will require lifelong monitoring. I realize how difficult it is to lose weight, even if we are really motivated to do so. How many times have you tried to lose weight? How many diets and exercise classes have you tried and quit? How many nutritionists or other specialists have you visited? Unfortunately, children don’t have even that much motivation, and without motivation, weight loss is next to impossible. There are, however, many things you can do to discourage excessive weight gain in your children.

Children should not be put on a diet restriction until after puberty. What you need to teach is “smart eating.” It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out how to reduce caloric intake. Consult a doctor or nutritionist if you are stuck. And know that childhood obesity is a family affair. You cannot expect your child to adhere to one set of rules and the rest of the family to another. As the parent, you have to set the example.

Physical activity is also important. (I do not like to use the word “exercise,” it sounds too much like work.) Physical activity should be fun. No child is going to go to the gym for a fat-burning workout. You have to find activities that your child enjoys.

Finally, the more you participate, the better the enjoyment and compliance from the child. (By the way, playing soccer by standing in the middle of the field watching the ball go by is not a caloric burner.)

The quality of your children’s lives is in your hands and is determined by what you allow in their mouths.

Post City Magazines’ kids’ health columnist, Dr. Mickey Lester, has been a pediatrician for more than 30 years and is the former chief of pediatrics at Trillium Health Centre.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO