Are Obese Children the Product of Child Abuse?

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Are Obese Children the Product of Child Abuse?Nothing makes a parent’s heart stop quicker than hearing of an abused child. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Unthinkable. But under a proposed Puerto Rican law, parents could be labeled as abusers if raising obese children.

The proposed legislation was introduced last January, and if it passes, it would penalize parents if their obese children failed to lose weight after a state-introduced exercise and diet program was unsuccessful.

Teachers and other school officials would identify obese children and along with their parents, would be asked to visit with Puerto Rico’s health department where they would be put onto a comprehensive diet and weight loss plan.

“Some legislators, including the bill’s sponsor, Senator Gilberto Rodriguez, are adamant that there needs to be consequences for the growing and costly obesity epidemic,” reported the Washington Post. “Senator Jose Luis Dalmau, who supports the bill, believes that holding parents accountable is ‘necessary for society.’ ”

The bill has been met with sharp criticism, not surprisingly: “This is not abuse. It’s a disease,” Milly García, a nutritionist who doesn’t support the proposal, told Puerto Rico newspaper El Nuevo Día. “It would mean entering into a private area where the government does not belong. Obesity is the result of many factors and what we need to do is find solutions.”

Legally labeling parents of obese children abusers may be an extreme response to the growing obesity epidemic. But is it really off the mark? Is obesity a disease that can’t be prevented—or cured? And aren’t parents somewhat to blame?

While we do know that some environmental (non-food) conditions and materials can trigger obesity or metabolic issues, it’s generally a combination of exposure to substances like endocrine disrupting chemicals along with an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. But parents are the ones who decide what a child first eats, and this develops their tastes and food preferences for their whole lifetime. But does it make them criminals?

“It’s not the right way to address this problem,” Ricardo Fontanet, the president of a local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told El Nuevo Dia. “It’s going to bring more problems because there are children who are overweight due to underlying medical issues and genetic factors.”

If we want to hold anyone criminally accountable, let’s turn our attention to the food industry. Fast junk food is, well, fast. It’s cheap. It’s often tasty too. Some would argue it’s even addictive. And let’s face it, obese children typically have obese parents. And those parents are usually doing the best they can with what they have. It often means a lack of cooking or nutrition experience, and that’s not a crime as much as it is a downright shame.

We can’t undo history, but we can ensure a brighter future. Food manufacturers are taking steps to make processed foods healthier. We are seeing big changes in fast food menus. Even soda companies are looking at making their obesity-causing beverages less loathsome.

But there’s always more that can be done. Fast (and processed) food companies could trim serving sizes and calories; restaurants could stop offering sodas altogether. They could continue to experiment with salads and healthy options even though they tend to be the least popular menu items. Just imagine what McDonald’s could look like if it started heavily pushing roasted beets instead of chicken nuggets. Sooner or later, we’d all forget about the chicken. We’d have to—we’d be too busy chasing after our healthy children to remember they ever existed.

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Kid with burger image via Shutterstock

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