On the day we brought home Nola from Swedish Covenant Hospital,
she weighed two ounces shy of 6 pounds. In the delivery room,
watching her thin, lanky frame stretched out like a pageant sash
across my wife's bare chest, I couldn't fathom how the child of
such a fat man could arrive in such a taut package.
But you're not fat anymore, I reminded myself. So stop staring
at your newborn daughter as if she emerged from the womb with a
quadruple chin. My arrival on earth circa 1978 made a big, painful
splash-early and 10 pounds big. During the 16 years that followed,
my physical body expanded to a morbidly obese 202 pounds by the
fifth grade and an inexcusable 500 pounds by the time I was half
way through high school.
My then 3-year-old niece, Chelsey, saved my life. It was Easter
1994, and while most families were pew-bound, my father and I were
dotting the front yard with plastic Easter eggs. When Chelsey burst
through the screen door, she ran down the porch steps, grabbed me
by the hand and began to zigzag the lawn, egg to egg, to gather her
candy. Less than a minute into the hunt, my heart was pumping out
club-ready beats faster than my head could process the blood.
Colored eggs twisted into kaleidoscopes as Chelsey's hand, damp
with my sweat, slipped from my grasp. Flashing lights from her
sneakers blinked in front of me, her thin yellow hair flew like a
trail of dust. I was losing her with each step. My breath seized in
my throat like a tightening noose and it was then that I had my
I'm going to die.
Veggies and shoe leather
Three years later I was an athletic 215 pounds-a weight I
earned, and have maintained ever since, through healthy eating and
running. Running is so integral to my success that five days into
Nola's life, my father-in-law took me to REI to buy the
top-of-the-line running stroller. Setting a good fitness example
for Nola is one of my top priorities as a parent, and I reasoned
that if a child learns to speak by being spoken to she could learn
to love exercise by watching exercise happen. Even if the lesson
did cost her grandfather a shocking $500. Only later, during the
installation of a car seat adapter, did I realize that babies must
be 8 months old to endure the jiggle of a running stroller.
What if that's too late, I thought. What if she ends up like
New parents fear the absolute worst-the worst being, if soap
operas are to be believed, kidnapping, baby swapping and helicopter
crashes over the Swiss Alps. I, however, am terrified of passing
along my childhood fatness to Nola and more often than not, I feel
powerless to stop it from happening.
Hours after her birth she fell asleep on her left side with her
right arm under her head like a pillow-the exact same sleeping
position I've employed my entire life. If something as
inconsequential as my sleeping pose can be passed down through
genetics, how is it possible for me to keep her from having the
same tortured relationship with food that I suffer day in, day out?
Did I, by her very conception, sentence Nola to a life of weight
I called Dr. Rebecca Unger, a specialist in childhood nutrition
and obesity at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, once I
realized professional help was in order. Nola was less than a week
old and I suffered parental guilt about something that was years
away from being of immediate concern.
"Should you feel guilty about your passing on your genetics?
Probably not," says Unger. "Parents who have a family history of
obesity and don't establish healthy habits often do experience a
lot of guilt their child's obesity. It's no different than having a
family history of cardiovascular disease. If you have horrible
patterns and don't help your child take preventative measures,
you'll feel responsible."
Obesity is to my family history what scandal is to the Kennedys.
Even those relatives who aren't obese have diets limited to
bologna, Diet Coke and M&Ms. You can't find one "salad" at a
Miller family dinner that doesn't contain either Cool Whip or a
candy bar. My diet, however, now centers on fruits, vegetables and
whole grains. I'm allergic to dairy, avoid gluten to ease my
asthma and eat only two to three servings of meat each week.
Still, I rarely eat a meal or snack without feeling guilty or
shameful about the calories I'm ingesting. Food issues are food
issues, and although I'm no longer obese, I'm not entirely free of
bad habits. As much as I don't want to pass on my obesity, I don't
want to pass obsession along either.
Ready for change
Unger says parents like me need to assess their own readiness to
change, whether it be obsessive dieting, bad exercise habits or
smoking. If a parent is overweight, doesn't exercise or starves
herself and doesn't want to do anything to change, efforts to
prevent their child's food issues won't work. Families have to be
ready to change as a family.
"It's good to take the responsibility and do something about it
preventively," she days. "As the antidote for drugs, bad behavior
and poor health, parents who are committed to being good role
models make a big difference."
Unger recommends talking about the consequences of poor
nutrition and lack of exercise, such as diabetes and heart disease,
and then deciding as a family to make a few small decisions that
everyone can commit to. She recommends cutting out juice and soda,
or taking nightly walks together.
Since Nola arrived, I've been even more careful to eat only
healthful foods and to run at least four days a week. I haven't
uttered the phrase "I shouldn't eat that" but I have thought it
more times than I can count. She's young, but I don't know when
she'll begin to make lasting observations about the right way to
live. And whenever she does, I want to be sure what she sees isn't
what I saw.
"Kids are smarter than we think. If you think they're starting
to understand what you're doing, they probably began understanding
quite some time before. It's important to be a good role model from
birth to college and beyond," Unger says. And while Unger admits
that Nola likely won't understand why I run for years to come, she
will begin to view my fitness as a normal part of life.
So what is the average person to do to ensure their child has a
healthy relationship with food and exercise? How can I make sure
Nola has what I wish I had had as a child?
Unger recommends parents follow the "5-4-3-2-1 Go!" Initiative
launched by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children,
which recommends a daily routine in which children eat five fruits
and veggies, drink four glasses of water, eat three servings of
low-fat dairy, spend less than two hours in front of the TV or
computer and engage in one or more hours of physical activity.
"We're learning more about kids who are overweight when young,
and there is a period around 4-6 years of age during which fat
cells increase normally called antiposity. If your child enters
that stage already overweight, you're putting her at risk of being
overweight for life," she says. "We can make little changes in
little people and it makes a big difference."
Realistically, I think I know Nola won't have a weight problem
and if she does, I trust that my wife and I will take the necessary
steps to help her overcome the struggle.
What I want more than anything, though, is for Nola to be
healthy and for her to be able to enjoy a piece of cake without
It will be easier for all of us if I lead by example, use my
experience to her betterment and let her instinct do the rest.
Matthew M. F. Miller, a Chicago dad and author of "Maybe Baby:
An Infertile Love Story" (HCI, 2008), is a syndicated fatherhood
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