Body image

Putting 7-year-old on a diet: Responsible, or reprehensible?

March 27, 2012 at 8:34 AM ET

Dara-Lynn Weiss admits it: She’s had issues with food her whole life. You name the diet, she’s tried it.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Weiss sprang into action when the pediatrician told her “we needed to do something” about her 6-year-old daughter’s weight.

Weiss describes her daughter Bea’s rocky road to svelteness in the April issue of Vogue magazine.

The article, in which Weiss acknowledges deriding Bea for eating an “inappropriate” snack at a friend’s house and withholding dinner after she  had consumed hundreds of calories worth of Brie and filet mignon at her school’s “French Heritage Day,” has stirred up a heaping portion of controversy.

Jezebel.com calls Weiss’s piece “the Worst Vogue Article Ever.”

 “The justifications to which Weiss clings as she describes the abrasive, often irrational weight-loss strategies she imposed upon her young daughter are truly disgusting, as is the obvious fact that Weiss was projecting her hatred of her own body onto her child,” says Jezebel writer Katie J.M. Baker.

But the Vogue article, which is not available online, also focuses attention on the struggles faced by parents of overweight or obese children. And there are lots of them —approximately 17 percent of Americans ages 2-19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By age 7, Bea was officially obese, defined as equal to or over the 95th percentile for body mass index, or BMI, for girls her age. At 4 feet, 4 inches, she weighed 93 pounds, putting her in the 99th percentile. Her mother started taking her to weekly appointments with a doctor who specialized in child obesity.

"There have been many awkward moments at parties, when Bea has wanted to eat, say, both cookies and cake, and I’ve engaged in a heated public discussion about why she can’t,” Weiss writes. But after a year in which Bea ate less and exercised more, the girl had grown 2 inches and shed 16 pounds, reaching a healthy weight. Her mom writes that she “celebrated with the purchase of many new dresses.”

Weiss may have achieved her goal for Bea, but the methods she used — the public embarrassment, the private ridicule — could set her daughter up for an eating disorder, says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition.

“You don’t realize how much of an impact those harsh words are going to have lifelong,” Bhatia, a professor at the Georgia Health Sciences University, told TODAY Moms. “That’s a very impressionable age.” While Weiss should be commended for trying to tackle Bea’s obesity at a young age, Bhatia said, “how she did it, I’m not going to comment on.”

Parents’ confusion over how to treat obese kids spurred the American Heart Association to ask a group of experts to draw up a report on the subject, published this month in the journal Circulation.

“So many parents and health professionals struggle with ‘what do we do?’” says psychologist Myles Faith, lead author of the heart association’s new “Scientific Statement.”  “We don’t want to promote an eating disorder. We want to be sensitive to children’s feelings. We want to be respectful.”

Generally, Faith says, research shows that positive parenting and reinforcement work better than putting kids down. “The first thing is to do something called ‘self monitoring,’” he says. “Focus on one or two very specific behaviors, keep a chart of them, write them down. Set realistic goals.”

Instead of simply telling your child to exercise more, suggest that the family take a 20-minute walk every day, says Faith, who’s on the faculty of the nutrition department in the public health school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

And instead of urging your kid to eat less junk food, you might want to set a goal for your family of eating one more piece of fruit and/or one more serving of vegetables each day.

While those steps alone probably won’t move a child from the 99th percentile for BMI to the 50th, they represent concrete, measurable goals that can start them on their way, Faith says.

So once a girl has slimmed down, is a bunch of new dresses a reasonable reward? “The best reinforcers have nothing to do with money or gifts,” Faith says. “Time with parents, hugs, attention, conversation -- these things are some of the most powerful rewards we have.”

For Bea, Weiss writes, “the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, she says yes…Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey.”

“’That’s still me,’ she says of her former self,” her mother continues. “’I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.’ I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek…’Just because it’s in the past,’ she says, ‘doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.’”

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