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"My Kids Were Fat"

Once upon a time, when Game Boys were boys who played sports and "carb" was not a four-letter word, I was quietly proud that my children drank juice instead of soda. I was secretly smug that they ate pasta four times a week and snacked on granola bars and oatmeal cookies. Of course, the mere mention of weight management was forbidden: It was thought that a single cautionary word about food from a parent—other than "candy equals cavities"—could batter a body image. I would no more have said "You need to make sure you don't overeat" than "If you don't play football, other boys will think you're a sissy."

Once upon a time, I would never, ever, ever have nixed a second helping of spaghetti. Everybody knew that forbidding food was tantamount to encouraging a child to "diet," and "dieting" among kids was a straight shot to an eating disorder.

How long was I the poster mom for denial?

I wasn't unaware that we were fighting an uphill battle, foodwise. Outside our house, in this land of milk and money, family-size cartons of fries drift like schooners down cola rivers, past islands of chocolate doughnuts. Granola bars have essentially become cookies. And the "virtuous" cookies, the ones with oatmeal and nuts in them, have gotten bigger every season.

But so had some of my kids.

Still, how could I overcome the dread? After all, friends, from both afar and right in my neighborhood—one a psychologist—were reluctant to make food a battleground even by insisting that their children try broccoli. How could I speak heresy and say, "Let's try eating a little less pasta and go easy on the sweets?"

It took an allergist to push me to that point. At my son's visit, the doctor told me point-blank that my child was short of breath not just because of his sensitivity to cat dander and grass but because he was too fat.

I gulped.

Too fat?

"Too fat" was a grown-up term. And the doctor had used it right in front of my son! Was that right? Was that real?

Best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard's most recent novel, Still Summer, was published in August by Warner Books.

Facing reality

We parents probably pay even less attention to our kids' weight issues than to our own. And according to the American Obesity Association in Washington, DC, it's not always on the front burner for most pediatricians. Yet the number of overweight kids has just about tripled in 30 years. Three-quarters of overweight kids will grow up to be overweight adults, raising their risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Despite having gained and lost the same 15 pounds for 20 years, despite knowing how huge a health problem this is, I never thought my children's weight would be an issue. I considered them self-limiting. After all, when they were toddlers, they ran all over, and I battled to get them to eat a mouthful of anything. That a child could be in danger of being overweight was a concept I couldn't quite get my mind around—even though there were more and more heavy kids among my children's classmates, even in preschool and kindergarten.

But how to begin addressing this with my kids? They'd already been banned from sugared cereals and were allowed the sedentary narcotic of TV only on weekends. We already made them ride their bikes over to friends' houses instead of driving them.

I couldn't hide any longer from the truth that I was serving my children the "idea" of healthy meals. If you eat three bowls of it, the fact that the mac and cheese is organic doesn't matter. Molasses cookies may be better than chocolate-chunk, but not if you snarf down six. So, girded by the thought that someday they'd thank me for this, I set to work.

Out went the gallons of juice—great stuff, but loaded with natural sugars and often supplemented with more. (Yes, we still have juice, but we limit consumption to a glass or two a day.) In came the gallons of water.

I tossed all Halloween candy after a one-night binge and enlisted my kindergartner as a "label detective," nixing anything on the shelf in which the first ingredient was sugar. I even got my husband to part with his holy (and nightly) bag of chips.

My kids despised me!

And my friends thought I'd gone overboard. They warned me that I was pandering to the other twin in the two-headed monster—not the glutton with the quart-size soft drink, but the one with the hollowed cheeks and protruding hip bones who sneaks out for banana splits and throws them up before she gets home. But if you were to apply these "rules" about talking about food to other areas of life, they'd seem ludicrous: No one ever stopped themselves from telling their kids to do their homework for fear they'd become too smart. No one ever failed to remind their kids to say "Thank you" for fear they'd end up with a politeness disorder. Food can be one of life's enjoyable sidelights, but as a ruling passion, it's not like art or music; it's dangerous.

My friends also made emotional arguments. They're only kids once, What's a summer day without an ice cream sundae? More than one suggested I was "projecting" my own "issues." After all, their kids had remained slim, despite living on hot dogs and sugary cereals.

It made me both nervous and, I have to confess, annoyed.

Had I given my kids the occasional cigarette, I'd have heard from Social Services—even though complications of obesity, according to authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kill almost as many people every year as tobacco does. I would never have gotten funny looks for slathering my youngsters with sunscreen.

I just wanted my six kids to recognize—30 years sooner than I did—that feeling full is the signal to stop eating and that exercise ought to be as natural as brushing your teeth. The choice was to risk seeming like a wacky, hard-hearted mom or watch my kids struggle through a chubby childhood and perhaps go on to battle their weight into young adulthood. Given my own experience—and I'm more Bridget Jones than Catherine Zeta-Jones—I had to risk the former.

My husband (still secretly pouting over the loss of his nightly chipfest) wondered if it was fair to deny certain types of food to the flyweights (himself included) so as not to present temptation to the heavyweights. I had to think that over.

But, hey, no one in my house is starving. No one needs junk food to maintain a normal weight. I watched my children's eating habits. The constitutionally slender ones ate fewer large meals than the others. They may choose six nibbles over three squares. We joke that when 6-year-old Mimi is old enough to date, we'll have to teach her boyfriend to install her car seat; Dan, a six-foot three-inch teenager, can barely keep his pants up.

But do I feel sorry for them? No. They like being slender. It's not so hard on the feet, or the psyche. When they return from a hiking trip, as their brother did last year, no one asks if they've gone to "fat camp."

A 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that obese children "enjoy" a quality of life slightly less cheerful than that of kids on chemotherapy. They're shunned by peers and blamed for their body size. Teachers perceive them as less intelligent. They won't participate in sports as often, partly because they lack confidence.

Does it scare me that my friends are right about my zeal?


But that study scares me more.