First posted: April 2001
Increasing problems of overweight among children and adolescents have found one apparent answer in the concept of ‘fat farms’, but questions remain about what is being done for the parents.
THERE is something I find really quite disturbing about the concept of “fat farms”.
Perhaps it’s because I was a “fatty” myself for the best part of three decades.
Perhaps it’s because the lessons that ittook me 30 years to learn do not seem to be part of what’s being addressed.
My first instinct is that the children who go to “fat farms” are – however implicitly – being blamed for the sins of the parents.
For me, there were three primary reasons why I became obese – a process which began shortly after my seventh birthday.
The first was trauma. My mother died when I was five. There were family problems after that which were never resolved as I now think they should have been. But, that was the 1960s, and the officer class, where my father had found his niche, who had been through the war kept their upper lips stiff; “counselling” was never an option.
It didn’t have a label then, but for several years, I was “comfort eating”. I would be uncomfortable, over full after lunch. And, as for the constipation … I remember it (too) well.
Secondly, my step mother had a northern background which believed very strongly in “growing lads” and “clean plates”. You ate what you were given. Second, even third helpings were considered an essential part of the development of the male, far more important even than testosterone.
With rationing not long gone, there was a distinct pressure and conditioning that nothing should be wasted.
The third factor was the shopping.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid 30s that the co-incidence of these three factors became apparent.
At last, I felt less uncomfortable about some aspects of my mother’s death. I learned to eat less, to stop when I felt I had had enough and not worry about leaving food on the side of my plate. That was hard; it still is.
But it was learning to take control over my own shopping that allowed me to make the biggest difference of all.
I stopped buying products with fat in them. No more margerine, cheese, biscuits, pies, cakes or buns came into the house – and, with some exercise, the pounds started falling off.
How is someone in their early teens, perhaps even younger, to do that?
Many parents are, I hate to say it, lazy when it comes to food – and especially preparing meals for their children.
They are so busy working – and earning the extra cash necessary to pay for expensive, ready-prepared convenience foods – that they do not cook meals which are healthier and better for them and their children.
Both adults and young exist on highfat fast foods. Fresh vegetables are sacrificed on the high altar of the beefburger and chips.
The fat and the sweetness produce a “feel good” taste. The food companies know it and exploit it.
So, how do we counter their influence? One answer is perhaps delayed gratification.
It’s not always easy to use sex as an incentive for someone who has yet to reach puberty, but it is an idea which could be tried later.
Fitter people have better sex. It’s possible to keep going for longer, make it more enjoyable and sensuous if you have more stamina. Lithe bodies – and please do remember that an older body can be very lithe – can entwine each other more easily than chubby, pudgy ones.
There were fit people at school. I envied their hard, firm bodies, but I didn’t make the link between the benefits such appearances could bring until I had reached an age when making that difference took far greater effort.
However much a fat farm may encourage a teenager to exercise, and watch their food intake, unless those who are doing the shopping – principally parents – change their habits too, the potential for any long term benefit is immediately undermined.
There’s not much point in sending William or Jemina, Asif or Shamshad to spend a week of their summer holidays learning to enjoy running round a playing field, if they come home to find that there are still oven chips where fresh raw carrots should be.
Children need different diets when they are young, but, by the time puberty is in sight, alterations should be taking place.
Fat farms can be seen as admissions of parental failure – on many levels; from an inability to cook and manage a household, to omitting to consult the health promotion and care professionals who would provide good advice when children are, say, seven or eight.
Reaping the benefits of changed shopping patterns is possible – but often it’s only a parent who make the change.