Parents to blame for childhood obesity?

"Behind every fat child is a fat mother who should take full responsibility," says Katie Hopkins.
"Behind every fat child is a fat mother who should take full responsibility," says Katie Hopkins. Photo: This Morning

Are parents to blame for producing obese children? According to Katie Hopkins’ latest controversial interview on This Morning they are, and they should also sit their children down and tell them "they're fat" if they want to change it.

The former UK Apprentice contestant and mother of three - who is notorious for her bold parenting opinions - was on the show with journalist Sonia Poulton. The women debated an article by obesity specialist Alan Jackson that claimed he meets "deluded families every week" who refuse to acknowledge their children are overweight.

Katie Hopkins agreed with the article stating that, "Behind every fat child is a fat mother who should take full responsibility," and that children should, “"get less in their face and more on their feet".

Sonia Poulton was shocked by Hopkins' comments and said that her approach would mentally affect a child.
Sonia Poulton was shocked by Hopkins' comments and said that her approach would mentally affect a child. Photo: This Morning

She also thinks parents need to take a firm, no-nonsense approach to broaching the subject with their overweight children.

"It's really important that parents get a grip, tell their children they're fat, get together and sit down and do something about it," said Hopkins, adding that other approaches, such as being sensitive in how they tell their child they are overweight or focusing on educating children on the importance of preparing healthy meals, were a waste of time.

"All of this nicety, being kind, teaching them how to cook good meals, that’s not the answer. The answer is: you are fat, you as a parent are fat. Get a grip, do something about it," she says.

Poulton disagreed with Hopkins' comments saying that approaching an overweight child in that way would leave them mentally scarred.

"Stop this child-hating, this is ridiculous. We are now psychologically savvy as people. We are not operating like Neanderthals dealing with people as though they have no emotions and no feelings," she said.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Kathryn Berry from the Quirky Kid clinic agrees that addressing weight and shape directly with a child should be avoided as it can have a negative impact on their self esteem.

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When talking to a child about their weight she says a "supportive, gentle approach is best”; as bluntly telling a child they are fat can do a lot of damage to their already fragile self-esteem.

"If you are going to make comments about their weight, chances are they are already feeling bad about themselves so it just exacerbates their negative feelings," says Dr Berry.

"When a child is obese that can have a major impact on how they feel about themselves and how they interact with others.  It can reduce self esteem and affect their friendships and competency at school," she says.

Nutritionist and dietician Dr Joanna McMillan also agrees that approaching the subject of weight loss with a child this way could, "destroy a child's self esteem and make them feel as if they are to blame".

“"It's crucial that good body image is enforced with all children, including those who are overweight. We must ensure that they are not judged by their weight, and that the focus remains firmly on what is healthy from the inside out," she says.

But the fact remains that around a quarter of all Australian children aged between five to 17 years of age are overweight or obese; costing the Australian economy an estimated $58 billion annually. So are parents blind to obesity in their children or are they lacking education and support?

While Dr Joanna accepts that ultimately it is up to the parents to provide healthy food for their children, she suggests that they also need support to make that possible.

"The reality is that we live in an environment that encourages obesity – and some areas worse than others. Where families see it as normal to eat energy-dense takeaway food, snack on lollies and drink soft drink, or simply to overeat, it's very difficult to change things for just one person. The whole family needs to take a stand and be involved and they need support from government, from local community and from extended family and friends around them," she says.

An Australian study of more than 500 children aged up to five conducted by the University of Sydney last year found that 70 per cent of parents of overweight kindergarten children thought their kids were the right weight, along with 30 per cent of parents of obese children who also thought their children were a healthy weight.

While Dr Berry agrees that parents are often unsure of what a healthy weight range looks like for their child another reason why so few parents seek help for dealing with childhood obesity is the shame associated with it.

"Obesity is also such a sensitive issue, not only for the child, but also the parents who may feel blamed or responsible for their child being in the unhealthy weight range, which I think acts as a barrier to help-seeking for parents," she says.

For parents who are seeking assistance for their child's weight issues, Dr Joanna advises that they first look at what example they are setting.

"Are they modelling family meals, plenty of veg on the plate, home cooked meals, daily activity and exercise? Or are they eating in front of the TV and grabbing takeout?"

For families who only have one child struggling with their weight, parents should talk openly with their child without judgement or ridicule.

"Discuss the importance of eating well and exercising. Teach children to understand hunger and when to stop eating. Teach them good eating habits like eating slowly and with awareness. Ensure you don't keep your kids quiet with food, or always be rewarding them with food – especially sweet or fatty treats," she says.

Above all, both experts agree that the most important thing you can do for your child is to model what a healthy lifestyle looks like on a daily basis. This isn't placing blame, but encouraging parents that they can make a difference if they lead by example.

"When families do it together we know they have much more success," says Dr Joanna.

What do you think? Are parents blind to obesity in their children or is it a lack of education and support? Leave your comment below or join the discussion on the Essential Kids forum.

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