December 12 2011

Marginalizing Parents

Julie Gunlock

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman offers his readers a weekly roundup of must-read food articles (with a few of his own super annoying editorial comments thrown in).  One of Bittman’s must-reads covers a new Australian study that shows school-based anti-obesity initiatives help kids maintain healthy weights.  The researchers also found that “there was no evidence of harm with these programs."

Sure, fine. Another study propping up useless school programs that do what parents should be doing—feeding kids.  As for the finding that they do no harm…sure, I’m certain kid’s aren’t bursting out in tears at the sight of a carrot being sliced but one has to wonder if our nation’s obsession with obesity accounts, in some part, for the spike in eating disorders among children as young as 11.  I wonder when a study’s going to address that connection. 

But the real question that should arise from studies like this is should controlling kids’ diets be the role of schools?  With everything schools have to do (you know, like making sure there’s no bullying or random hard balls lurking around the gym), should we really be adding the feeding of children three squares a day to that long list? And, call me old fashioned, but shouldn’t a parent be the primary source of food for their children?

Not according to Bittman who says in his commentary accompanying the link that “research finds that school is the best place to combat childhood obesity. (Self promo: the breakfast table is not.)”

Nope, that’s not what the article says.  The researchers are simply saying that these programs help kids stay healthy.  The researchers don’t comment or compare those children fed mainly at school to those fed at home.  Of course, what Bittman’s really referencing with this “self promo” comment is his Times column where he talks about the horrors of sugary cereals.  Since, apparently, Bittman believes parents are incapable of feeding their children anything but sugary cereals, he prefers a government-run institution that serves cafeteria (yet Washington-controlled) food.  

But kids really aren’t too hard to figure out.  I don’t have a research grant, or a PhD in child development but I can tell you one undisputed fact about kids: They want mom and dad to take interest in them.  That “interest” includes many things: reading to them, cuddling with them, feeding them, and most importantly explaining how to live a good and productive life.

There’s a bit of research that demonstrates that fact too (although I bet Bittman never offered a link to articles about this study).  The University of Ohio released a major study of childhood obesity in 2010 that showed that kids had lower incidents of obesity if their parents practiced three routines in the home: having a family dinner at least 5 times a week, turning the television off, and making kids to got bed earlier. What’s critical about this study was that it showed these routines were found to reduce the likelihood of obesity even among children at high risk of the condition (for reasons like having a family history of obesity, being raised in a low-income household, or growing up in a single-parent home).

A 2007 study from Northwestern University yielded similar results, finding that inadequate sleep put children between the ages of 3 and 18 at greater risk of being overweight. The researchers discovered that just one extra hour of sleep helped to reduce the risk of being overweight from 36% to 30% for young children.

These studies suggest that the key to controlling childhood obesity really has little to do with schools or feeding programs or these much vaulted anti-obesity programs. Rather, the most important part of the solution is hands-on parenting.

Now someone tell Bittman that kind of parenting starts first thing in the morning--around the breakfast table

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