July 13th, 2011
12:07 PM ET
Researchers from Harvard University say inadequate or unskilled parental supervision can leave severely obese children vulnerable to the societal influences that promote an unhealthy lifestyle and are suggesting that this may be a form of child abuse that authorities should act on.
In a commentary posted Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, professor Lindsey Murtagh and Dr. David S. Ludwig suggest that severely obese children be removed from their homes, and that government involvement may be justifiable because of the imminent health risks and the “parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems.”
“I can see the authors have good intentions – they want to protect the child – but the suggestions are misguided,” said ethicist Arthur Caplan in a phone conversation. “The problem with this proposal is that it puts the onus solely on the parents. This is not a problem just with individuals, this is a societal issue,” he says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the past 20 years, obesity has risen dramatically in the United States.
An estimated 17% of children in the U.S. are considered to be obese – which is defined as a child having a body mass index or BMI that is equal to or greater than the 95th percentile for their age and gender. For example, a 10-year-old boy with a BMI of 18 would fall into the fifth percentile and be considered a healthy weight. However a 10-year-old boy with a BMI of 23 would considered obese, because his BMI is greater than the 95th percentile.
Being extremely overweight increases a person’s risk of developing other serious health problems, like coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and mental health disorders.
“State intervention may serve the best interests of many children with life-threatening obesity, comprising the only realistic way to control harmful behaviors,” the authors say in the commentary. They argue this would be a better alternative than the expensive and potentially dangerous weight loss surgery that is sometimes used to treat obese adolescents.
The authors note that several states including California, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas, have legal precedent for applying this framework to overnourishment and severe obesity. Still, most state custody laws stipulate that removal of a child from the home be executed if there is reason to believe the child is likely to suffer imminent serious physical harm, injury or death. Being obese can lead to future illness and likely early death, but it's not imminent.
Experts say sometimes good intentions, but misguided efforts may be disparaging to obese children who are trying losing weight.
The U.S Surgeon General's call to action initiative to prevent overweight and obesity has several suggestions for parents who are concerned about their child’s weight. They recommend focusing on the child's health and positive qualities, not their weight and suggest trying to gradually change the family's physical activity and eating habits, instead of making the child feel different.
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