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Weighing into family life – again

Obesity campaigners want all expectant parents to be weighed. We should tell them to get stuffed.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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‘Parents are stuffing food into their children. The portion sizes are too large, they are insisting the children finish what’s on the plate and much of the food being eaten has high levels of fat, sugar and salt.’ (1)

So says Tam Fry, a trustee of the UK National Obesity Forum (NOF), who will argue at the NOF’s annual conference this week that midwives should record the body mass index (BMI) of newly pregnant women and their partners. Where parents are obese, midwives should then give them advice on their eating habits on the basis that fat parents are more likely to produce fat children, and that being obese will increase the risk of a variety of health conditions, particularly type-2 diabetes.

Fry told the Sunday Telegraph: ‘I know some people will think this goes too far down the road of the nanny state, but I think if you tell people that their own habits can put their future children at risk they just might listen.’

There are practical problems with such a proposal, as pointed out by Janet Fylde, policy adviser to the Royal College of Midwives: ‘If you say to a woman that you want to weigh her and her partner, to see if they are likely to have fat children, you are putting your whole relationship with them in jeopardy, and also increasing the risk of women going on diets when they are pregnant, which could harm the baby. We absolutely disagree with this proposal.’ (2)

Mere trivialities like the inefficiency and potential harmfulness of this kind of intervention and the way it infringes on parents’ rights have never stopped obesity campaigners and health guardians from meddling in family life in order to ‘save’ children. But the consequences of their proposals and actions can be very serious indeed.

A year ago, I debated Tam Fry on BBC Radio 2. He argued that overfeeding children should be regarded just as seriously as child abuse and that very fat children should be taken into local authority care (see Childhood obesity is not a form of child abuse, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick). It seems local authorities agree with him: The Times (London) recently reported on a case where two children from Dundee were taken into care because they were deemed to be too fat.

And yet the assumption that fat parents produce fat children who become fat adults who die young – and that drastic intervention can prevent this – is full of holes.

Firstly, children may be overweight for particular periods while growing up, but then lose such ‘puppy fat’. Secondly, it is far from inevitable that larger parents will start ‘stuffing food’ into their children. Frankly, most parents find it hard enough getting their children to eat what is put in front of them. The idea that parents could force kids to eat more than they want seems bizarre.

Thirdly, it is far from inevitable that children will copy their parents’ behaviour rather than make their own decisions about how to live as adults – including choosing different eating habits or being more active. It would be better to allow children to grow up and decide for themselves than interfere in what should be private matters between parents and kids.

Fourthly, obesity must, to some extent, be genetic, like many other aspects of how we look. If parents are fat because of a hard-wired disposition to lay down body fat, their children may very well inherit this propensity. Guilt-tripping expectant parents or, worse, taking children away from overweight parents in such circumstances seems pointlessly cruel.

As Professor Jeya Henry of Oxford Brookes University told spiked earlier this year: ‘There is no evidence that an overweight young person, whether six, seven or eight years old, will become an overweight adult.’ He noted that while we should not ‘belittle the issues of obesity and overweight’ we need to ‘keep these issues in proportion’ (See ‘Whatever next: fat babies? Fat fetuses?’, by Tim Black).

The real problem is that obesity is treated as a disease, in and of itself. The alleged need to cure this ‘disease’ is used as an excuse to intervene in relationships that should, as far as possible, remain private. But obesity is not a disease – it’s a body shape. There appears to be a strong relationship between extreme levels of obesity and ill health, but simply being big does not automatically mean you are ill. The majority of fat people are in good health, while many thin people are chronically unwell. Body shape does not automatically determine health.

There is a very strong correlation between high BMI and type-2 diabetes. However, it is not clear that obesity itself is the problem. For example, it may be that there is some other factor that both increases a person’s propensity to pile on the pounds and to become diabetic.

However, these health effects really are only very strong amongst people who are ‘morbidly’ obese – with a BMI of at least 40. In adults, that equates to being roughly 40 kilogrammes (about 90 pounds) over the so-called ‘ideal’ weight range. In the most recent statistics from the Health Survey for England, that means about 1.2 per cent of adult men and 2.2 per cent of adult women. That’s not exactly common, then.

That is not to say that being very overweight is much to celebrate. The vast majority of obese people would love to lose weight for much more practical reasons than the possibility that they’ll lose a few years’ worth of old age. Mobility, clothes shopping, even basic self-esteem must all be major problems for those who are very overweight in a society that simply loathes obesity.

But even if it could be shown that interventions in pregnancy and childhood could guarantee healthier lives for children in the long run, such interventions would still be a problem. The relentless rise of state interference into family life robs us of an important, private sphere in which we can make decisions for ourselves. We should defend our freedom to decide what is best for our children, and not have our decisions dictated to us by target-setters in Whitehall or social services departments closer to home.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Patrick Basham and John Luik said fat people are being turned into social outcasts. They also attacked proposals to remove children from obese households. Nutrition expert Professor Jeya Henry told spiked that there is little connection between being an overweight infant and an obese adult. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said we should stop bullying fat kids and pointed out that childhood obesity is not a form of child abuse. Rob Lyons was sick of the endless diet of government intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) Expectant parents should be weighed to prevent fat children, says obesity charity, Sunday Telegraph, 4 October 2009

(2) Expectant parents should be weighed to prevent fat children, says obesity charity, Sunday Telegraph, 4 October 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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