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Honey, I shrunk the kids!
Most adults hate to go on a diet. So imagine what it must be like for children, some as young as six or seven, to count calories and visit dieticians. But that's what happening as increasingly body-conscious Indians decide they don't want fat kids.
Mumbai-based weight loss expert Naini Setalvad shares the example of a client who would even encourage her daughter to throw up after eating high-calorie food. "Another client would give her child only a boiled egg for breakfast, " says Setalvad, who herself battled obesity through childhood.
It's difficult to be a fat kid these days. Teachers, parents, TV and movies are constantly harping on maintaining optimal weight and a slim body. Experts fear that this may leave the present generation of children with a very strained relation with food - one of the most personal bonds we share. It's little wonder that a recent article on a mother who almost tormented her daughter into losing weight has created such a storm in the American media. The candid and shocking account, written for a fashion magazine by Manhattan socialite Dara-Lynn Weiss, of how she policed her daughter's calories could make Amy Chua (of Tiger Mom fame) blush.
Weiss writes: "I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories of Brie, filet mignon, baguette and chocolate...I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week. " She even admits to snatching a glass of hot chocolate from Bea's hand and throwing it in a trash can at Starbucks when the attendant failed to give her the exact calorie count. Bea, 7, was diagnosed with obesity after her four feet four inches frame was found to weigh 42. 27 kg, just a couple of kilos overweight. (The optimal weight for Indian children at this age ranges from 18-37 kilos. )
While Weiss' is an extreme example of hyper parenting, nutrition experts warn that Indian parents, too, are getting obsessed with how much their child weighs. Mumbai-based dietician Pooja Makhija, who also counselled actor Vidya Balan on weight matters, says that she sees up to 10 children every weekend. "And half of them have overweight parents. " The point here being that unless adults eat healthy, it's difficult to make children conscious of calorie-rich foods.
Columnist and nutritionist Ishi Khosla cites the example of an overweight couple who brought their eight-year-old to her for weight loss. The daughter weighed 60 kg and had developed a snoring problem. "Her father weighed 120 kilos. When her parents were telling me about her problem she started laughing at them. It was difficult to discipline the girl into healthy eating when there were chips all over her house. Initially, she lost four kg but now she's stopped following the diet, " says Khosla.
Parents also need to change their attitude towards their child's weight. It does not help to discuss the child's size, or ridicule her in front of others. Weiss, obviously, missed the point when she wrote the article: "I stepped between my daughter and a bowl of salad nicoise my friend was handing her, raising my palm like a traffic cop. "Thanks, " I said, "but she already ate dinner. " "But she said she's still hungry, " my friend replied, bewildered. I forced a smile. "Yeah, but it's got a lot of dressing on it and we're trying. "
Makhija says when she talks to the children who've been bought to her in private, they often complain about such behaviour. "One mother who came to see me with her overweight daughter said 'she runs the treadmill but at a geriatric pace'. Children hate being corrected in front of their peers" says Makhija.
Why parents lose the sight of reason when it comes to chasing health and weight-loss goals for their children could be because they themselves suffer from low self-esteem and want their children - an extension of their selves - to be perfect. "Our present obsession with appearance is another reason for such behaviour, " says Pulkit Sharma, clinical psychologist at VIMHANS, Delhi. Exposure to reality television, teen icons like Justin Beiber, Hannah Montana, Selena Gomez and size-zero Bollywood heroines have moulded the perception of how children and teenagers should look.
It's not uncommon to see sixth graders refusing colas and chips or seventh-graders asking their moms for permission before digging into a plate of chhole-bhature at a birthday party. While children should be encouraged to eat healthy, they shouldn't be deprived of food, say experts. "This can result in emotional deprivation, which can further lead to addiction problems when they grow up. Childhood is a time to explore and enjoy and children should be given that space, " says Sharma.
Moderation is the key, say experts. "The terminology, approach and attitude with which parents deal with their child's weight issue can also make a huge difference, " says Makhija. At her clinic she gives a food diary to children where they are encouraged to put smiley stickers on days when they overcome temptation to eat much more than what's healthy. "It's a locked diary and only I and the child have the key to it, " she says.
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