Discerning Palates and Discerning Minds: What shall we do about Childhood Obesity?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

If a child suffers from obesity, has low self-esteem and is bullied on the playground perhaps because of his weight, it is unlikely that taking him away from his parents is going to do much for his mental wellbeing even if his physical wellbeing sees an improvement. Proposals that are being debated at the moment want to classify obesity as a form of child abuse. Doing so would make the role of Social Services stronger with regard to families with obese children as these children could be taken away from their parents on grounds of neglect, supposedly a form of abuse.

Unless a child has a medical condition that makes him overweight, it would be difficult to claim that his parents are fault free with regard to his obesity. However, to classify obesity as a form of abuse is problematic because it suggests that parents who have obese children do not love their children. Ironically, it may be excessive love and pandering to everything that a child wants to eat, i.e., spoiling the children, that might be resulting in their becoming obese. Although it is worth exploring whether it is ever morally permissible to take a child away from his parents on grounds of his being obese, to classify obesity as a consequence of abuse is morally wrong.

A child who is undernourished might be a child who is abused because his parents might make him go hungry as a form of punishment. However, unless a child is obese as a result of force-feeding, which seems unlikely, obesity is unlikely to be the result of abuse. It may, therefore, be possible to classify cases of some undernourished children as cases of child abuse, assuming of course that lack of nutrition is not the product of financial constraints. An obese child, however, is not an abused child even if his parents are in some way responsible for his obesity.

Children, who are obese as a result of a genetic condition or some other type of medical condition, ought to be given the help and support they need to reach a healthy weight. It is not these children that this article focuses on because to take a child who is unwell because of a medical condition away from his parents would in itself constitute abuse. The interesting question is whether children who are obese, not because of a medical condition but because of their lifestyles, ought to be taken away from their parents.

It is easy to place blame within the home because that is where children spend a lot of their time. The home is not a pure environment where parents are able to exercise complete control over their children. If this were the case, we could blame the parents of obese children and consider taking these children away. But within the home lie outside influences such as the media, that serves as a powerful avenue to the supermarket and, consequently, goods that are targeted at children. Although there are strong moves to restrict levels of sugar and salt in foods that are aimed at children, children are still exposed to plenty of tasty, fattening foods that are considered treats. Even fast food chains target children with toys that are included with meals that are already unhealthy.

It is easy to blame parents for buying children fast food or other unhealthy snacks regardless of where they get the food. And it is largely true that parents, over and above anyone else, have the strongest impact on their children because they make almost every decision that governs the child's life. However, for as long as there are other contributing factors such as the media, fast food chains and supermarkets, all of which contribute to a child's food preferences, to blame parents alone would be somewhat inaccurate.

This point is critical in determining the powers that Social Services ought to have with regard to taking children away from their parents. If parents were solely responsible for their children's obesity, then the Government might be justified in granting Social Services powers to remove them from parental care. However, for as long as the Government does not regulate the supermarkets, the media and the fast food chains, it must share in the responsibility of childhood obesity. And for as long as it shares in this responsibility, it is less than clear as to why parents ought to be the ones who are punished by the very Government that shares in the blame.

It seems ironic that cigarette packets carry stark health warnings for adults who are well aware of the dangers of smoking yet children's snacks do not carry warnings for children. Even if their parents were aware of the dangers of giving their children crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks, it would help if some child-friendly health information and warnings were printed. This way, parents could work with their children by showing them these warnings and children will become better aware of what is good and bad for them. The current traffic light system (red, yellow and green based on how healthy the food is, green being the healthiest, yellow being semi-healthy or semi unhealthy, and red being the worst) of labelling is better than no labelling at all but it still comes without child-friendly warnings. Older children might benefit from the traffic light system but the system may not be helpful for young ones. A child’s eating culture ought to be developed when he is young and teaching him how to make healthy choices is a vital part of this culture. If we are truly concerned about the health of the consumer, regardless of whether he is a smoking adult or a crisp-eating child, we ought to print health information in age-accessible language.

Adults and children make decisions differently. For example, an adult who smokes is able to make a decision as to whether or not to smoke based on the information he is given regarding the dangers of smoking. He may choose to disregard the warnings and make his decision on the basis of the pleasure he receives when smoking but he is still capable of taking the health warnings on board when making his decision. A young child, however, does not have such a discerning mind. All that is discerning is his palate. Left to himself, his decisions can only be based on what tastes good. Health information does not factor into his decision-making process because he is simply not aware of it. Making health information age-accessible might help solve this problem. Health information does not have to be restricted to strong, "cigarette packet type" language. It can be child-friendly with the use of happy and sad faces, for example. A child who can relate to what he is eating is likely to make a better choice. Here, health information, even presented in a primitive form, will help him make his choice and will also provide an effective way for his parents to encourage him to eat the right foods.

The problems of childhood obesity extend far beyond the obese child. For as long as food manufacturers target children and ensure that they use children's vulnerability to make profits soar, the rates of childhood obesity will also soar. Before we punish the parents of obese children, we must first punish the media, the supermarkets and the food manufacturers for playing with young minds. Only when all other parties are innocent can we even begin to isolate blame to parents and then consider taking their children away from them. Until then, to break up families on grounds of abuse is in fact an act of abuse.