Would you put a seven-year-old on a diet?
By Anna Coogan
Article from The Evening Herald Website Tuesday April 10 2012
NEW York mum Dara-Lynn Weiss did just that, and put her seven-year-old daughter Bea on a strict diet after discovering that at 4ft 4 ins tall she already weighed 93lb.
Her decision to put her child on a diet has caused a furore in the States, following her article in this month's American Vogue about how Bea resisted and rebelled, and sometimes threw a tantrum when she put an end to her eating "adult-size plates of food" and failing to "self-regulate" at the school snack table.
Described as a socialite in the New York press, Weiss is leaving parents divided over whether putting a child on a strict diet is a healthy step or unnecessarily harsh.
With the current problem of child obesity in Ireland, her methods will be of interest to parents, while Dublin-based nutritionist Aveen Bannon, mum of six-year-old Maia, is among those who feels Weiss putting her young daughter on a strict calorie-counting diet was the wrong way to go.
Weiss has admitted to policing her daughter at birthday parties. "I cringe when I recall the many times I had it out with Bea over a snack given to her by a friend's parent or caregiver . . . rather than direct my irritation at the grown-up, I often derided Bea for not refusing the inappropriate snack. And there have been many awkward moments at parties, when Bea has wanted to eat, say, both cookies and cake, and I've engaged in a heated public discussion about why she can't."
She even deprived Bea of dinner. "I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories of Brie, filet mignon, baguette, and chocolate."
She was angry at her little girl's food cravings too. "It is grating to have someone constantly complain of being hungry, or refuse to eat what she's supposed to, month after month. It's exhausting managing someone's diet, especially when her brother has completely different nutritional needs."
Weiss has been attacked on the internet for being the most "selfish women to ever grace the magazine's pages".
Another commentator wrote: "I'm pretty sure Weiss just handed her daughter the road map to all her future eating disorders." Dublin-based psychologist Niamh Hannan, who is affiliated with www.helpme2parent.ie and mindworks.ie, says she would be concerned that a young child put on a harsh diet regime would end up with unhelpful ideas about body image. Some parents are, however, impressed with how Weiss did something after her family's Manhattan pediatrician decreed Bea to be clinically obese and at risk of weight-related problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, if she didn't lose weight.
Weiss writes that is was when her daughter came home from school traumatised by a classmate's taunting that she decided to put Bea on a diet — and then documented it for the world to see.
The result is that Bea has lost 16lb after 12 months, and while the seven-year-old has admitted to liking her new clothes, she has reportedly said that she hates the idea of facing her calorie-obsessed future.
Random House has announced that it signed up Weiss to write a book about her daughter's weight-loss struggle, and already there is talk that the book will be a hit with fans of tough-love parenting, like the thousands who recently bought Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua who made her daughter practise piano for hours on end and never let her eat a second cupcake.
Dublin nutritionist Aveen Bannon is mum to six-year-old Maia and says: "It's hard for a parent of an overweight child to know how to approach weight loss. But, I think, if a child is approached in a sympathetic and encouraging manner, weight loss is just as successful, if not more so, than by following a strict and hard approach.
"The strict approach of this lady might not cause an eating disorder, as an eating disorder is a complex disease, but it could very definitely cause an unhealthy relationship with food and body image, which at such a young age seems very irresponsible.
"Firstly, I don't recommend ever discussing calories while making dietary changes with a child. Talk about the problem in terms of nutritional education and what the body needs to work well without a child becoming self-conscious or developing guilt about food," Aveen adds.
"The first focus should always be activity and encouraging 60 minutes of exercise daily. The next step to focus on is lots of colourful fruits and vegetables per day, encouraging some colour at each meal and making it a family project to try and get the five a day into the diet.
"I would always recommend that the changes are family focused and not individually focused. It's always important to look at hydration too and make sure kids are drinking enough (water, milk and just one glass of juice per day) and not mistaking thirst for hunger.
"Yes, we need to be realistic and children in Ireland are increasingly overweight and this does need to be addressed but parents should monitor portion sizes, treats, sweets and fizzy drinks, especially in young children who aren't buying or preparing the foods themselves.
"But children also learn from example and ideally they should see parents eating a healthy varied diet and see them exercising regularly," Aveen says.
Niamh Hannan says: "On the one hand, the mother took action to deal with her daughter's weight and the immediate result is that her seven-year-old is now a healthy size rather than heading towards obesity.
"However, how long will these results last? And how healthy is the child, really, if the weight loss came in such a strict and controlling fashion?
"It remains to be seen whether the young girl has been set up for an eating disorder; certainly she has been conditioned into some strong mindsets and behaviours around food and body image," she says.
Niamh goes on: "I think children learn by osmosis — they don't end up eating things just because you tell them to, but instead they learn from observing you and eating with you, as well as their peers.
"For young girls, their mother is a particularly strong role-model. So how will this girl know that 'going on a diet' is not actually a good idea at any age of our lives? This inevitably means we come off the diet, eat whatever we want, put on weight again and have to start all over," she says.
"Rather than depriving ourselves of the craved food, it works better long-term to have a 'little of what you fancy' and keep a healthy balanced diet," Niamh says.
"This young girl has instead been set up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting, obsession about body size and most likely unhappiness with her own image unless she's getting her mother's approval by being slim," she says.
– Ireland is reported to have one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world, with 10pc of children aged five to 12 now considered obese with 25pc of nine-year-olds here said to be overweight (Growing Up in Ireland 2009 study).
– Obesity in children can lead to serious health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, and to social discrimination.
– Draft rules to regulate the promotion before 6pm of food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar have been proposed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. >The BAI clampdown is aimed at curbing growing levels of childhood obesity, and may include a ban on advertising all types of cheese, including half-fat produce, and many popular breakfast cereals during designated times of the day.
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