Childhood Obesity = Child Abuse?

I came across an intriguing article recently discussing the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country, and questioning whether the state should view children being overfed in the same way it views children being starved or given illegal substances. In short, is overfeeding a child to the point of obesity so damaging to the child’s health that the state should intervene?

My initial reaction within the first paragraph or two is that this was going too far, allowing the government to get overly engaged in parents’ decisions about raising their children. But the more I read, the more I found my beliefs challenged.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, raised this troubling topic in a piece entitled, “Should Obese Children Be Taken From Parents?” Here’s the paragraph that first hooked me:

Adults are criminally liable if they give cigarettes or alcohol or illicit drugs to a child. And they are criminally liable for starving a child as well — this constitutes abuse. But our society does not view giving a child a donut or fries or soda as abusive — even if it occurs day after day. How do we sanction state intervention for a bad outcome attached to behaviors we condone every day?

Dr. Katz then recounts a story of a flight he took, where two obese women were sharing the First Class cabin with him, and they ate and drink constantly while tending to a two year-old baby traveling with them. They chuckled to each other about how they barely fit in the First Class seats, and how the bathrooms were almost unusable for people of their size. The author poses some difficult reflections about this experience:

Imagine if two drug addicts joked in public about the health consequences of their drug use, even as they shared their drugs with a small child. Children are removed from their parents for less.

Imagine if smokers joking about their worsening emphysema put their cigarettes into the mouths of their infants. Would anyone observing this feel inclined to mind their own business?

I don’t think giving a child a donut or a slice of pizza is a life-threatening danger, but I do worry when parents habitually give their children large amounts of unhealthy food and set them up for a lifetime of chronic health problems.

Considering the monumental impact that obesity can have on a person’s health, I do wonder how we as a society should balance parents’ rights with children’s health when it comes to eating habits. What do you think?

One Response to Childhood Obesity = Child Abuse?

  1. Lyndsey Rikard says:

    That’s a hot issue in therapy these days. I’ve been working with families whose struggles are with food addiction and obesity, and while I definitely think something needs to be done, I’m not sure removing children from their home is the best answer. I will tell you that most of the time I see families who struggle to pay their bills, and put food on the table. The food that they can afford and is convenient to them is fast food, processed, and/or comes out of a box. I know government intervention is especially controversial right now, but I think it’s important for all of our citizens to be educated about healthy choices and for healthier/local/organic food to be available to all classes of people. This might help many of the problems I’m seeing with my clients and all of the people struggling to control their diets and eating habits.


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