Junkfood Science: Baby fat fears

April 15, 2007

Baby fat fears

It should not be at all surprising that the incessant warnings about bad fat have been translated by young people, and plenty of adults, to mean that if it’s so important to eat low-fat and avoid even moderate intakes, then eating no fat at all must be even better. Just to be safe. Studies have found that college-age women have become so afraid of fat that many are eating close to none, and eating disorders are soaring. Yet, a surprising number of healthcare professionals and obesity interests still don’t see the connection between their continual dietary admonitions and any negative effects. It’s unpopular to believe any harm comes from creating fears over fat, perhaps because many see only what television and media portray and don’t realize what’s really going on in homes. Few realize what young people and young mothers are actually talking about, their fears, and the lengths they are going to trying to be slim and eat “healthy.”

Well, an Op-Ed in Newsday may help change that. It showed that not only are fat fears harming this generation, but they are threatening to endanger the health of the next one. Victoria Torres shares what most of us who work with women and children have known: what too many are really doing behind closed doors.

In her piece, “Obsession over thin babies,” she writes:

Anna Nicole Smith asked her nanny to skimp on her baby's formula because she wanted the infant to be thin and “sexy." This is what the fired nanny swore in an affidavit that news reports called “shocking" and “appalling." But this news is not the least bit gasp-worthy to me. Smith's attempt to keep her baby from plumping up puts her in the company of many of the middle-class mothers who live in my neighborhood.

I became a mom a year and a half ago and...have marveled at the long, lithe necks and high cheekbones of other parents' infants, and at hipster toddlers who look as emaciated as Iggy Pop. My own little boy is not so little. He's fat. However tempting it may be to insist on "big bones" or to explain that his father is 6- foot-5, he's a butterball. Strangers can be cruel about it. Part of the shock of my son's girth is that I'm not heavy and neither is my husband.... From the time our boy was about 2 months old, neighbors would gawk and ask me what I fed him....

While I dutifully follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations and fill an 8-ounce cup with whole milk for my well-rounded son, other moms are splashing a bit of 1 percent milk into a sippy cup of water, explaining in a side-mouthed whisper that their 15-month-old is "getting a bit chunky."

I share this observation with my son's pediatrician, who frowns knowingly and tells me her office is overrun with babies who are underweight - “absolutely off the charts." Then I tell her something she hasn't heard before: “I know a woman who waters down her breast milk."...

These are not uneducated mothers or low-income mothers unable to afford formula or milk; these are mothers who’ve become more concerned their children look slim, than that they get the nutrients they need to grow and develop healthy. As Mrs. Torres writes, everywhere she turns, there’s frightening news about an obesity epidemic among American children and massive spending and government initiatives to combat the crisis. The important benefits of dietary fats is a nutritional message that doesn’t stand a chance of breaking through the current level of anti-fat hysteria to reach many mothers who, themselves, are afraid of fat.

But every notable scientific review of the evidence, including the World Health Organization, has stressed that a high-fat diet of about 50% of the energy from fat is necessary throughout infancy and the first two years of childhood.

“Fats are considered the most important energy source in the infant diet and are necessary for normal growth and physical activity,” according to Dr. Ricardo Uauy, of the University of Chile, Santiago, in a recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mother’s milk is high in cholesterol and about 50% fat, mostly saturated and monounsaturated. These dietary lipids are essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins and for the development of all tissues, most importantly the development of the central nervous system: brain, vision, hearing, etc. In contrast to popular fears that fat and cholesterol are bad, their research on babies and children throughout 18 Latin American countries has found that diets low in fats and animal fats result in significant growth stunting.

A previous post examined the concerns of pediatric experts over restricting fats in growing children and exampled a number of studies showing short stature, delay puberty and nutritional shortages. According to Dr. Fima Lifshitz, M.D., at the North Shore University Hospital in Long Island, the cases they've documented have been “mostly from affluent families, as a result of fears of obesity and the desire to be slim.”

Health reasons are commonly cited as a justification for restricting fat in children's diets. While it is popularly believed that fat restrictions in children could prevent heart disease and cancer, no clinical trial conducted in the U.S. or Europe has ever demonstrated that. The evidence for risks of harm contrasting with the lack of proven benefits, has led some to even question restrictions in older children. According to Robert E. Olson, M.D., Ph.D., of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of South Florida:

On balance, the risks of lowering the fat and cholesterol content of children diets so outweigh the benefits as to totally invalidate the recommendation of the expert panel of the NECP and the 1992 Committee on Nutrition of the AAP. Although it is clear that many children consuming diets containing 30% of calories from fat will not suffer growth failure if their energy content is adequate, the idea of promoting low-fat diets for all children without evidence of benefit will increase the risk of malnutrition in some of them.

Natural, protective baby fat, long beloved and recognized as a favorable sign of a healthy baby, is now something feared. Today’s parents not only feel anxious about a fat baby because of the obesity epidemic news that surrounds them, but, as Mrs. Torres explains, they feel pressure to keep their children thin in order to be seen by others as good parents. She and her husband, however, have resisted such pressures and shown exemplary wisdom and insight that may help other parents:

My friends Mike and Liz, who don't have children, reassure me by pointing out that all the babies in magazines and on TV are “squishable." They remind me: “Babies are supposed to be fat!" But I still have an urge that goes back to high school to fit in with the cool kids. I want my baby to be, if not sexy, then hip.... But I don't want to subject him to the acute anxiety about his weight that so many other mothers seem to feel about their kids. Sometimes, I wonder if the mothers who shop in the organic food aisle really are worried that a chubby baby makes them look fat.

I could add to my child's anxiety by foisting upon him not only my own worries about childhood obesity but also the anxiety about being a good mother that other parents are foisting on me.

Instead, I will do my best to allow my son to develop a healthy relationship with food and his body. And if he does grow out as well as up, my husband and I certainly will love him no less.

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