It was Unhappy Meal-time in the Bay Area last week, as the City of San Francisco banned the sale of children’s meals with toys if the food doesn’t meet healthy guidelines. A few days later, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale released a report noting that 84 percent of parents in the U.S. take their kids to fast food restaurants at least once a week.
Regardless of where you stand on San Francisco’s actions, the juxtaposition of these news items highlights a hard truth: Childhood obesity rates are rising, our current measures to curb it are having little effect — and parents are allowing it to happen. There’s an ongoing debate on the degree to which government and schools should step to address this issue (is it smart public policy, or are we becoming a nanny state?). But a lot more of our discussion needs to focus on Mom and Dad.
As any parenting magazine will tell you, the causes of childhood obesity have become more complex and pervasive than in past decades. And the role of parents in fighting the problem is also increasingly complicated. In fact, it looks like the biggest culprit may be the busy lifestyle that accompanies a two-working-parent home; one consequence of our jam-packed schedule is that more hard-to-control calories are being consumed outside the home.
As women’s participation in the workforce has increased, the total household time for preparing meals has been cut in half. Food choices are often made for convenience rather than nutrition, which apparently leads to at least one trip a week to the local fast food joint.
So how can local, state or federal government encourage parents to proactively address the issue? National intervention programs, even well-funded ones like the now-defunct VERB campaign from the CDC, have not managed to curb the rising tide. It’s not going to be easy, but just as we’re doing in education, it’s time to start focusing on parental involvement on changing children’s eating habits. Interestingly, family-based therapy (the Maudsley method) has proven significantly more successful than individual therapy in treating anorexia nervosa. We know that emotions can determine what we eat, whether we exercise and how we see our bodies. So let’s really focus on what family-based therapy and knowledge can do for obesity, especially in households where it’s an intergenerational problem.
Parents need real nutritional knowledge to understand what they are feeding their children, and especially how many calories their children actually need. Knowing that a convenient meal is more than half of what your child should eat for the whole day will help parents make better choices. This means clearly marked labels and menus. Parents must also learn more about the risk factors and consequences that can follow obesity. They have to know that childhood and adolescent obesity rates (estimated at 17 percent) have surpassed the latest rate of current alcohol use among youths (16.5 percent). That’s something to get mad about.
In terms of calorie consumption and exercise, parents have to step up and become active diet dictators and enforcers, with appropriate discipline, to guide their kids in the right direction. All the government and medical intervention in the world won’t fix the problem if Mom and Dad leave the cooking to the deep fryer at the local drive-through.