Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: The Heavy

This book has weighed on my heart and soul for several weeks, partly because it has taken me several weeks to listen to the audio version (few opportunities and a gap from attending camp), and partly because it deals with an issue we currently struggle with - the weight of our child.  Perhaps, I should even say "children," since according to BMI charts, both of my two younger sons are not in the healthy range. 

I clearly remember the time, a few years back, when someone approached me at camp and asked if my oldest had been chunky like my younger two.  I drew back with astonishment that she had lumped Sean into a category with Trevor.  He doesn't strike me as "thick" or "chunky."  He is, in my eyes, perfect.  However, the current BMI charts beg to differ, placing him in the overweight range.

With Trevor, we have always been aware of his tendency toward extra pounds on his frame.  He was a large baby and has always had a voracious appetite.  In many ways, I have attributed this to his being very similar to my deceased brother-in-law, Rob.  He shares Rob's build and even some of his personality traits (scary, since Rob was an alcoholic who eventually took his life).  If honest, I am equally mortified at the possibility that others might look at my middle son and assume that he gets his weight problem from me.  It seems petty to say that I allow my child's weight issues to cause me emotional anxiety because of how it would make others view me.  How low, right?  But, it is certainly a weakness on my part, the desire to not be personally held responsible for my child's weight problem.

But, back to the book.  In The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet, Dara-Lynn Weiss candidly shares her journey dealing with an obese child.  Pronounced "obese" at the tender age of seven, her daughter Bea sounds an awful lot like my middle son.  She proclaims her hunger more often than the average child, many times even on the heels of a substantial meal (oh, how I can relate).  The trouble is, of course, that we're talking about a child, not a grown-up.  This is where things get tricky and opinions seem to fly.  On the one hand, you have people who swear parents should never put their child on a diet.  On the other, you have people who judge parents of obese children, assuming that it is something in their parenting which must be causing the child to be so large.

This hits a nerve!  What amazed me about the book was that the author never once gave in to self-centered whining, something I am often prone to.  I feel angry that my child is unable to go about life in the usual manner with usual results.  I am indignant over the fact that despite feeding our sons an identical diet, one son suffers with a weight problem.  It seems so unfair on his behalf.  He is just a kid.  Shouldn't a kid be able to eat when they are hungry, without being limited in their intake?  Shouldn't a kid be allowed an occasional treat like ice cream?  Why did my child have to be the one God chose to saddle with a tendency toward weight issues, while some other parent glibly attributes their own child's healthy weight to some magical thing they are doing differently? While I rant and rave, Dara-Lynn Weiss merely gets down to brass tacks and determines to do whatever it takes to get her child back on track and into the healthy range according to the charts.

I will admit, I don't know if I fully believe these charts.  Can you lump everyone into the same category of needs for a certain percentage of body fat?  There are certainly different builds and my son clearly is of a stocky nature.  His bones are big.  His legs are big.  He is line-backer material.  Can he really be held to the same standard as a child who has a different body structure?  Or am I just grasping at excuses to justify his higher weight?

What must be obvious, is that a parent with an overweight or obese child definitely struggles with emotional issues surrounding the right course of action.  I could relate to so many of the sentiments expressed honestly in this book.  I appreciate the author's willingness to bare her soul on this difficult subject.  She articulates the self-doubt, the personal recriminations, the worry about carrying the role of "the heavy" when it comes to limiting the intake of a child, and the intense desire to give your child the very best that they can get to be the best they can be.  She fully gets what it feels like to be the parent of an overweight child.  It is an issue you can't sweep under the rug.  It is clearly visible to your circle of friends and acquaintances.  I myself have been guilty of judging parents of other morbidly obese children. It is hard not to assume that faulty behaviors are entirely to blame.

But, even more significant, is the fact that it can't be swept under the rug because it is harming someone you care about deeply.  I love my son and want him to be healthy.  I don't want him to develop diabetes.  I don't want him to suffer the emotional battle doled out by harmful words from peers.  I want the very best for him, without having to nag and cajole and obsessively focus on something so touchy as his weight.  Moreover, I worry that my desire for him to be at a healthy weight will somehow sour our relationship due to my vocalizations of those worries and my insistence on limiting harmful snacks or desserts.

We eat a fairly healthy diet already.  The boys have vegetables and fruit with every meal.  Instead of red meats, we focus on chicken or fish.  They rarely eat fast food.  They are not allowed to drink pop or sugary juices or Kool-Aid.  Yet, our efforts at eating a healthy diet are not paying off in the loss of unwanted pounds.  Yes, we could take away all desserts and chocolate covered granola bars and ice cream and what-not.  We could rid our house of all processed food and the occasional bag of potato chips.  There are steps we could take which we have not implemented yet (like insisting he take a carefully prescribed bag lunch instead of purchasing the supposedly healthy school lunch, where he can get a snack if he eats everything on his tray).

In the book, the author details her efforts at limiting the number of calories her daughter consumes.  While I balked at the idea of offering those convenient little 100 calorie packs of snacks simply because it entailed fewer calories than a healthier choice, I understood the mother's heart and her desired goal. For me, the best thing I derived from this book wasn't a strategy for reducing my own child's weight, but rather a sense of solidarity with someone else who understands where I'm at in this struggle.

Here is a recent photo of my younger sons:

They don't look overweight and obese to me.  Sean, my youngest, looks healthy and Trevor looks overweight.  According to the BMI charts, Sean would have to lose 3 pounds to put him in the healthy weight range.  For a boy as little as he is, 3 pounds sounds like an immense goal.  For Trevor, the story is even more bleak.  Trevor would have to lose 35 pounds in order to put him in the healthy weight range.  That sounds downright impossible.  How does a child lose 35 pounds?

We are already implementing more exercise.  We walk the track at the high school so that we can keep track of the number of miles we walk.  Trevor jumps rope and bounces on either our outdoor trampoline or a small indoor one.  John even has him doing sit-ups and push-ups.  Yet, the weight continues to climb. I dread making the yearly check-up for Trevor because I don't want to experience the scolding I'm sure to get from our doctor (who at the last appointment mentioned a need to address the situation and suggested desserts be limited to once a week).

What's a parent to do?  Perhaps the answer is to follow in Dara-Lynn's shoes and place my children on a restrictive diet.  I could go on the restrictive diet with them, since the charts indicate I must lose ten pounds to be in the healthy weight category (and I'm not really dissatisfied with my present weight). Despite my willingness to be involved in the process, there's the question of how to get an eight year old to be committed, since his commitment level will be key to the success of any venture (and at this point, Trevor is not on board the way Dara-Lynn's daughter was). And what a strange situation to be trying to put weight on the wiry older son, for his role as a defensive end on the football team, while trying to reduce the intake of a younger son whose appetite is every bit equivalent to the teenager's appetite. 

Whatever we decide, I take heart in knowing that other parents are fighting a similar battle.  I am encouraged that I am not alone.  That, in itself, made this book worth the read!

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