Are parents to blame for childhood obesity?

Childhood obesity is a problem. It is a function of the foods children eat both at home and at school. The people responsible for feeding children are parents not advertisers. Running the line that it is all to do with advertising allows adults to run a “Johnny told me to” line, which would not be accepted as an excuse from a child.

It is not about blaming parents. It is about telling it straight. Unless we tell parents that what their children eat is their responsibility we will not see change. The only people who can change the eating patterns of children are parents.

A new video is doing the rounds on the internet. It is about childhood obesity. The video can be described as provocative. It shows a mother with a child sitting at a table. The mother appears to be getting ready to inject the child with a drug and at the last minute she gives the child some “junk food” to eat. The question asked is if you wouldn’t harm your child by injecting then with drugs what are you doing giving them food which is bad for their health?

Good question!

So given the amount of concern about this issue you would expect that such a video would be welcomed by those who are pushing the barrow of a need to do something.

Surprisingly this was not the case.

It is interesting to see how wedded people are to their own view of the world. This is particularly the case with so called “experts” and people who hold academic and other positions of authority.

According to Australian ABC News, two leading public health figures did not like it. That, of itself is fair enough. People have different tastes. It was the reasons which caught my eye. The ad apparently put the emphasis on the child and put the blame on the parents instead of the people writing junk food ads.

Really! So who exactly is it that feeds children? Is it the parents or people writing ads? They feed their own children but no one else’s. The word blame is pejorative and not helpful. What if we said it laid responsibility for what children eat at the feet of parents?

It was particularly interesting to see then that the productivity commission has looked at a range of programs to deal with childhood obesity. These are the ones so loved by public health people and academics because it results in funding for their programs.

The commission found that of the 27 programs assessed, none had a major impact on the problem. Furthermore it debunked the notion that there was any direct link between TV watching and childhood obesity despite children being “bombarded” with ads. It found that banning junk food advertising would have no impact on childhood obesity.

This comes as no surprise to me but no doubt will astound some of our friends in academia land who will dismiss it, as it does not fit with their pre-conceived notions. It is always fascinating to see people who invoke research, sing a different tune when the research is not to their liking.

What children eat is a function of what they are fed. The people responsible for feeding children are parents. If we are going to see any changes, then it is parental behavior that will need to change.

Joe Kosterich is a physician in Australia who blogs at Dr. Joe Today.

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  • Finn

    I’ve seen so many parental comments after childhood obesity articles wailing “But all he’ll eat is chicken nuggets and pizza!” that I despair of any progress on this issue. I always want to ask them who gave the kid chicken nuggets and pizza in the first place, and why they’re allowing small children to make decisions that affect their health. Do they also let their kids refuse vaccines because they don’t like needles and jump around on the back seat of moving cars because they don’t like being strapped in?

    • Jenny

      To parents with picky kids–there are multiple ways to address picking eating. It is normal for children to refuse some foods the first few times they see or taste them. Keep trying! Don’t give up!

      I have a son that is very picky about food, and occasionally my daughters are as well. I make healthier pizza (homemade, no meat, baked crust with almost no fat, etc). I stopped buying chicken nuggets, so it isn’t even an option at our house. We have healthy cereals and sandwich supplies if they refuse dinner. But I also make a large variety of foods–and I notice that if I let the kids help buy or make the food, they are more invested in it. Also, consider that smell and taste are closely related. My kids come into the kitchen and ask what’s cooking and start anticipating eating dinner based on the smell. Maybe parents of picky eaters can try introducing those smells and show that they enjoy a variety of foods and let the kids help make it. I also have a neighbor child eat at our house often. My kids try more foods with her here because she tries it and they want her to think I’m a good cook. :-)

  • Erin

    Blame isn’t the best word, because you can’t be blamed for what you don’t know. Many adults are just now starting to learn about real nutrition because it’s been highlighted as such a big issue lately. My mom cringes now to think she sent us to school with a ham sandwich, chips and a juice box, thinking that was a healthy meal. All she knew was it was better than what the schools served! Now my family eats healthier than we did as kids, thanks to what I have learned, and I feel that positive cycle will continue with my daughter. All blame aside, it starts and ends at home. Period. Parents who have healthy habits will have kids who eat largely the same. The good news is, you can start any time.

  • D Murray

    I mostly agree with you. It is definitely the responsibility of the parents to provide healthy food. However, as the mother of a 10 year old and an 8 year old, I find it a constant battle dealing with the food that other people give my kids. The school is always having bake sales and birthday treats. When they play at other people’s houses, the cookies and cupcakes and chips are neverending.

    So, yes, we need to control what we keep in our homes but we have no control over all the other crap that gets sent their way. It’s not insignificant and I imagine it just gets worse as they get older. My kids are slender and are very active but both of my nephews are overweight. I think the difference is where we live. We walk everywhere. They don’t.

  • lurker

    Sure, of course parents are responsible. But, in the US, we also have:

    –relentlessly increasing portion sizes
    –government subsidized production of cheap corn syrup which ends up in everything
    –The US agriculture department pushing inclusion of high fat dairy products in commercially available foods, all for the benefit of the dairy industry
    –a preponderance of households where two parents are working, or led by a single parent.

    If you are committed to making most of your meals from ingredients brought home from the supermarket, you can do okay. If you have time and money. The cheap food is loaded with salt and transfats.

    Obesity in the US is very much a class issue. Given the power of AgriBusiness, it’s a pollitical issue as well.

    • Jenny

      I have to agree with you.

      I think portion size is a HUGE issue. We need reminders of how much a serving is, how many calories is that serving, and then see what a serving looks like on a plate. The “all you can eat buffet” approach to life isn’t working!

      I also agree that portion CONTENT is important. Whether restaurant cooked or homemade, foods that seem like they should be healthy might not be. That sweet potato casserole could be filled with cream and sugar. Those green beans have bacon or French fried onion rings and tons of salt in them. Turkey hotdogs still have a surprising amount of fat in them. I wonder if healthy cooking techniques ought to be available as an outreach class for poorer neighborhoods.

  • Carol Bender

    Blame is not going to help solve this problem, our society has changed drastically with television and computers. There are more reasons for people to be less active. Social skills also tend to disappear, in the children I see who are plugged in on a regular basis. This is all a matter of choice. There are many thin people who are just as unhealthy as the obese, because they forget to eat and aren’t getting enough food. Education about balance, moderation, and wellness that incorporates mind, body, and spirit is a possible solution. I just wrote a children’s picture book that will be out this year titled “Picky Eater that Peter”. The message in my book is about making the right choices because it feels better when you do. I love the idea of empowering children to think for themselves. That’s what I’m doing to help.

    • Dr Joe

      Yes it is about choice. Your book sounds great.

  • Finn

    I agree that it is about choice, and also that our choices are being shoved in certain directions by the Dept. of Agriculture –and the very fact that it’s the Dept. of Ag, not the Dept. of Health & Human Services, setting the rules for the food stamp, school nutrition, and WIC programs makes it abundantly clear whose interests these programs are really designed to serve. As long as farm subsidies, price supports, and other federal programs make it more lucrative to grow corn and soybeans and cheaper to buy products made from them and cooked in their oils, it’s going to be far cheaper to feed kids chicken nuggets & fries than grilled chicken with peas & carrots.

    • Dr Joe

      The situation is different in different countries but having government policies that help rather than hinder good health would be a step forwards.

  • Carolyn Thomas

    Excellent points, Dr. Joe – thanks for this important topic.

    Although “blame” is a loaded word, I think it’s well past time to call a spade a spade. OF COURSE it is the parents who are purchasing the unhealthy foods that are making kids fat. And if the parents are obese, you can just bet that the kids are eating the same junk food that’s making their folks fat, too.

    The food industry is wising up to the backlash against some junk food, which is why we’re seeing products like Froot Loops cereal (over 50% sugar by weight) now being advertised as containing healthy fiber to help our kids’ digestion. Oh, please.

    Kids (and adults!) eat junk food because it tastes good.

    Dr. David Kessler (the Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, former Yale Medical School dean and commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) believes that the junk food combo of salt-fat-sugar actually stimulates our brain to crave more. His fascinating book, “The End of Over-eating”, which claims that foods high in salt, fat and sugar actually alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to over-eat.

    What’s needed to combat this brain chemistry ambush is a perceptual shift, he claims. “We did this with cigarettes. It used to be sexy and glamorous, but now people look at smoking and say, ‘That’s not something I want!’ We need to make a cognitive shift and change the way we look at food. Instead of viewing that huge plate of nachos or fries as a guilty pleasure, we have to look at it and say, ‘That’s not going to make me feel good. In fact, that’s disgusting.’ “

    Dr. Kessler also sees parallels between the tobacco and food industries. He claims that both are manipulating consumer behaviour to sell products that can harm our health. More on this at “Chocolate Covered Bacon and Other Ways To Alter Your Brain Chemistry at

    It may well be that junk food purchases for children stem from a parent’s ignorance (but how appallingly ignorant do you have to be to put Coke in your baby’s bottle?) or they may be excused by the parent’s poverty (although bags of salty/sweet/fat processed treats cost far more money than buying bulk apples).

    To see how to plan menus with very little money, check out this Hamilton Health Sciences piece called “Eating Healthy On Any Budget” which includes recipes and sample price comparisons between a pair of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks – one made with healthy, simple, inexpensive, easily-available food and the other with store-bought processed foods. For example, a serving of sweetened, flavored, packaged instant oatmeal for your kid’s breakfast is about 80 cents compared to a same-size serving of real oatmeal at just 21 cents. “I can’t affords to buy healthy foods for my kids” is the cop-out of the ignorant and unmotivated. More at:

    As you correctly say, “the only people who can change the eating patterns of children are parents”. I’d add another point to that truism: it’s also OTHER children’s parents who have the power to supply unhealthy foods to our own.

  • Brent

    I am glad to see more and more attention being drawn to this issue. I do not have children of my own, but I do care about the health and wellness of kids today and of future generations. So when I heard of the opportunity to work for Ricki Lake’s new program, I jumped on board. Ricki is a mom of 2 boys with a busy career and schedule. She can relate to the troubles parents face when trying to provide a healthy well-balanced lifestyle for their kids. That is why she brought together a team of health care professionals to start AllStride. I admire Ricki and all she is doing to help prevent childhood obesity and provide a happy, healthier future for kids.

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