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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Starting a dialogue on childhood obesity

Originally published May 27, 2006, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

Growing up overweight isn’t easy. I should know; I lived the experience firsthand. And having that history makes me incredibly passionate about the subject of childhood obesity and the epidemic it’s become in our nation.

But battling childhood obesity is not as simple as protecting in-school physical education requirements or teaching nutrition in elementary schools. Though children need to learn how to make better eating and lifestyle choices to ensure their own health, they need the support of their parents to make that happen. In their defense, parents do not intuitively know how to help their children lose weight or be healthy.

But now there is a children’s book on the market that addresses the subject in a manner that’s accessible to both kids and their parents. “It’s Not Your Fault That You’re Overweight” is written by Merilee A. Kern, a former marketing executive for eDiets.com who continues to write nutrition columns for the company. There are gender-specific paperback editions of the book and even coloring and activity e-books for children younger than 7. It’s available at www.notfault.com

The title alone is eye-catching. As someone who was obese as a child, my first question was who the author would choose to blame. Would it be parents for allowing their kids to be inactive and overeat? Would it be the fast-food industry for enticing children with their commercials and ads? Or would it be society as a whole for innumerable reasons?

The answer is both all and none of the above. Kern addresses the issues of children favoring video games over being active and the increase of eating in restaurants or on the run. However, the entire book is written in a nonthreatening tone. Her central message is that everyone — children and the adults in their lives — makes poor choices that promote being overweight. But instead of assigning blame, the author poses the issue to be one of ignorance. It’s not that kids or their parents are intentionally making bad food and lifestyle decisions; it’s that they don’t know any better.

The main characters (Patty or Matt, depending on which edition you purchase) and their parents don’t realize how serious it is for children to be overweight until a doctor’s appointment. The doctor educates the children and their parents about the medical consequences of obesity and offers advice that puts the children on the path to achieving a normal weight.

The book is not humorous, particularly if you identify with the characters as I do (luckily, my name doesn’t rhyme with “fat” or “fatty”). The author has a very clear understanding of what it means to be an overweight kid and does not sugarcoat the experience. Being teased and bullied are addressed in addition to the physical limitations that come with carrying too much weight on a child-size frame.

Personally, I think the book hits closer to home for those of us who have been there in regard to growing up obese. I think Kern also makes a concerted effort to make those who have never struggled with their own weight understand the difficulties overweight kids face. She also includes a section of talking points for parents to use in discussing the story with their kids to make the experience more interactive.

Will this book alone change the world and guide us out of the epidemic that is childhood obesity? Probably not. But it’s a good start.

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