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 “a-ha” moment.
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 me?
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 issues?
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 adult-onset
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 guilt.
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 blogger.