Family History

By Debbie Koenig 

“I don’t want you to pay too much attention to BMI,” the pediatrician was saying, “but he’s one point away from being classified as obese.”

I know BMI is an unreliable measure. I’ve been reading about this for years. And my son is clearly not obese. But compared to his peers, the change in his stats is pretty staggering. This string bean of a boy went from the 41st percentile for weight to the 91st in two years — he gained 12 pounds in just the last four months. In the examination room, I find myself fighting panic. And a disturbing sense of déjà vu.

The pediatrician’s questions receive grunts from my son: Do you play any sports? Do you eat plenty of vegetables? How much time do you spend playing video games? I can see him shrinking back into himself, feeling ashamed. He knows what to do to be healthy, but he doesn’t like most of it. It’s hard to admit that you’re behaving in a way you understand isn’t good for you. I try to reassure him that we aren’t criticizing him, but his body language shows he feels it as such.

I’m burning with shame, too; as his mom, I should have a better handle on this.

Is this how my own mom felt at my annual physicals, this queasy mix of worry and guilt? Year in, year out, the pediatrician would give us a gentle-but-stern talk about my weight. My mom started to hear these lectures when I was considerably younger than my son, since I was chubby from toddlerhood. I never made his disturbing leap in percentiles, since I was always near the top of the charts. Now, in 2016, my son’s pediatrician offers virtually the same advice my own mom received more than four decades ago:

“Don’t keep junk food in the house. If it’s not there, you can’t eat too much of it.”

My knee-jerk response: I don’t keep junk food in the house. My mom always fought the doctor on that, insisting that I had three brothers who shouldn’t be deprived of their beloved Doritos. Plus, didn’t I need to learn to live with temptation? Once I grew up and took control of my eating with Weight Watchers, I learned how wrong she was. If it’s not there, you really can’t eat it. Duh.

But once I got past my defensiveness, I have to admit this summer was a bit of a free-for-all when it came to junk. My son ate hot dogs at least three times a week. Chips, ice cream, fries. I was so tired of always fighting about it, I’d surrendered my responsibility. I still wasn’t buying massive amounts of the heavily processed stuff, but our intake was much higher than usual.

On the way home from the doctor, my son and I talk things over. The doctor would like him to come back in six months for a quick weight check, so I suggest that we take it as an opportunity to experiment: For the next half-year I won’t be bringing home chips. No goldfish to weigh out into little 1-oz. plastic bags. No ice cream in the freezer. No two-packs of Oreos. Hot dogs would be a once-a-week family dinner. We’ll still have treats, of course, but only outside the home. We’ll go out for ice cream. I’ll buy him a single-serve packet of chips at the bodega once in a while. I’ll bake sometimes, since he and I love to bake together and I can control what goes in those desserts. All these things will be treats in a real sense, something to have occasionally, not every day.

And we’ll commit to moving our bodies at least 30 minutes every day. Walking, biking, scootering, trampolining, whatever, we’ll get our hearts beating regularly.

He doesn’t say much, but he agrees to try all this. Reluctantly.

Wish me luck.

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