Are Parents to Blame for Obesity?

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Forget blaming the obesity endemic on soda, trans fats, and endless hours sitting in front of a screen. A bold new PSA from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, points a finger closer to home, at mom.

The nearly two-minute spot starts with a 5-foot-9, 300-pound adult male named Jim being placed on the emergency room table where a medical team begins working to save his life. When the nurse notifies the ER doctor of the patient's alarming weight and young age, the doctor wonders aloud, “How the hell does that happen?” From there, the ad flashes back, revealing poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. As the flashback continues, Jim's mom enters the picture. At first, she seems caring, gifting him an at-home treadmill to help him lose weight. Rewind a little more, and the story shifts. Rather than encouraging her son to be healthy, as she does later, Mom is doing the opposite, picking up fast food for him, buying him candy from a vending machine, letting him eat sugary cereals for breakfast, and feeding him French fries.

The final scene leaves you watching the medical team cutting open 32-year-old Jim's shirt as they prep him for (presumably) emergency open-heart surgery. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta then drives it home with this direct statement: “Your child’s future doesn’t have to look like this.”

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Some folks interpreted this as the PSA's way of saying “Hey Mom, stop killing your kid!”. So the hospital took to its website to better explain their intentions:

“If you’ve never regretted a parenting decision, stop reading this. Now the rest of you, gather ‘round. As parents (and humans), we’ve all made decisions that didn’t look too good in hindsight. But today, right now, we have an opportunity for a life changing do-over. It’s true. We can rewind the future by doing something differently today, and literally change our story’s ending. Of course, we’re talking about making sure our kids are as healthy as they can be. And especially if your children are still children, it’s not too late. If we make the decision to guide them in a healthier direction right now, they’ll live to be healthier, happier adults—and thank us for it.”

Placing guilt or blame was never the hospital's point. The goal was to raise awareness and encourage parents to help in preventing childhood, and ultimately adult, obesity. And—to some extent—parents are to blame: “Food addiction tends to start early in children because parents give food to soothe the child, i.e., ‘Give him a bottle if he cries.’ Parents also give food as love to make a child happy, and they give food to obtain love back from the child. And parents give food as a reward, i.e., ‘If you are good, I will get you some candy,’” confirms pediatrician Robert Pretlow, M.D., the director of Weigh2Rock.com, a website for overweight youth.

Establishing long-term food co-dependence is definitely a big part of the problem, but it's far from the only indicator of your weight fate. “Weight is impacted by multiple factors. Genetics plays a role in body type and composition—and can influence weight up to 75 percent,” explains Jen Christman, a registered dietician for Medifast Inc, a Baltimore-based weight management program. “But our environment can trigger certain mechanisms or responses that we then exhibit. For example, sugary and salty foods or beverages actually trigger us to want these foods more over time. So our genes may permit us to become obese, but the environment determines whether we actually become obese.”

Even if you carry so-called fat genes (yes, these exist), it doesn't mean you're doomed, though. “If you focus on healthy behaviors and are consistent with exercise you have a fighting chance,” Christman adds. And it's not just on mom to set kids on the right path. “We know that many people have influence over our children’s eating patterns,” she says. “Kids are constantly introduced to different foods on television, through friends, and at schools. We all need to take responsibility, not just the mom.”

Tell us what you thought about the PSA in the comments box below or tweet us at @Shape_Magazine.

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