Why parents can't end the obesity epidemic alone

This article was originally published online as a comment commissioned by the British newspaper The Guardian.

“To what degree are parents responsible for rapidly rising rates of child overweight and obesity? This questions are raised in this week’s BBC Radio 4 Report, which discusses a few recent cases where morbid obesity has prompted authorities to remove children from their parent’s homes.

Comparing Britain and the US with France sheds interesting light on this question of parental responsibility. British children are twice as likely–and American children nearly 10 times as likely–as French children to be overweight or obese. Indeed, France has one of the lowest rates of overweight children in the developed world, and Britain and the US some of the highest. Are British and American parents to blame?

The answer is complicated, because the causes of obesity are complex: physical activity, poverty, “food deserts“, genetics and obesogenic chemicals all play a role. But what our children eat is undoubtedly a factor, particularly in terms of what scientists term a “positive energy balance”: too many calories in and too few out.

This is where parenting styles – and food culture – are relevant. It’s no coincidence that random snacking (or “grazing”) is traditionally frowned upon in France. The majority of French children snack only once a day at the late-afternoon goûter, and otherwise are expected to wait patiently until their next meal – which they are generally happy to do, having been taught the difference between having an empty stomach and truly feeling hungry.

French parents teach their children to listen to their own hunger cues and to limit portion sizes. Parents will ask, “Are you still feeling hungry?” rather than, “Are you full?” – a subtle but important distinction. Traditional long, slow meals (most schools have a two-hour lunch break) also helps children learn to listen to their own “fullness feelings”, as satiety signals take more than 20 minutes to reach our brains from our stomachs. The paradox: just like their parents, French children spend a longer time eating than ours, but eat less.

And that’s not all: they eat more veggies, but appear to enjoy it more. Studies have shown that French mothers introduce a far greater diversity of foods to infants (paediatricians recommend leek soup for infants!). The proof is in French school lunches, which feature foods such as beetroot salad and butter beans, grated carrot salad and cauliflower casserole, endive and even escargots.

This suggests that French parents can’t claim all the credit. Healthy eating is included in the school curriculum: “tasting week” classes introduce children to new foods. Lunch menus (following ministry of education regulations) can’t include the same dish more than once a month, so that children are exposed to variety. Most school lunch desserts are simply fresh fruit, children drink water (no sweetened drinks are available, and vending machines are banned in all schools), fried foods are served only a few times a month, and ketchup is allowed a maximum of once a week – and only with foods with which it is traditionally eaten.

Why all of these rules? The French believe that teaching children to eat is as important as teaching them to read. In fact, eating well is one of the first skills that parents teach children, from weaning onwards.

They believe that healthy eating starts at home. But they also believe that even well-intentioned parents find it difficult to counteract food marketing, poor quality school lunches, and a “grab and go” food culture in which snacking is increasingly the norm. This is why France has a “soda tax” on soft drinks, and why television advertisements for snack foods carry a warning: “For your health, avoid snacking in between meals.” Sounds silly? The French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec is the only jurisdiction to have banned TV food marketing to children, and it has the lowest rates of child obesity in North America.

The French example suggests we should acknowledge parental responsibility for creating a family food culture in which children are taught – and enabled – to eat healthily. Healthy eating starts in the home, and parents have by far the most significant role to play in shaping how their children eat.

But many aspects of our unhealthy food culture are beyond the control of individual parents. Many of these are profit-driven, supported by corporate lobbies that have little interest in children consuming less food, or fewer processed foods – which is precisely what they should be doing. In response, we need changes to the school curriculum and school lunches, controls on food marketing, higher nutritional standards for foods targeted at children, and (yes) government intervention to ensure accessibility of healthy foods – rather than cheap, calorie-rich, but nutrient-poor foods – for those living in poverty. These actions are beyond the scope of individual parents, but without them the child obesity epidemic will continue.

5 thoughts on “Why parents can't end the obesity epidemic alone

  1. Pingback: Q&A : Karen Le Billon : French Kids Eat Everything : Author & Blogger : Vancouver | The Creative Bus Stop

  2. So delighted you enjoyed the book, and I’m thrilled that you think adults will be interested as well. Many of the eating habits we adopt as adults are learned in (early) childhood, so hopefully the book sparks conversations about what people have learned (and might need to unlearn). Thanks SO much for your endorsement — it really means a lot! And please let me know how your group responds; I’d love to hear about their reactions.

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  3. Just finished reading your book and I can’t stop thinking and talking about it with anyone willing to listen.

    As a Weight Watcher’s leader who struggled with my weight for years, I found myself wishing I had been raised in France, where I would have learned how to eat well. Instead, I’ve spent a good part of my adult life trying to figure it out.

    Imagine my delight when I picked up next week’s copy of Weight Watcher’s Weekly to prepare for my meetings, and discovered that you are quoted in it: “The French won’t ask a child, “Are you full? but rather “Are you still hungry? “- a very different feeling.

    It’s just the lead-in I need to suggest they all read French Kids Eat Everything!

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  4. Pingback: Why parents can’t end the obesity epidemic alone | Karen Le Billon « funmefit

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