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More Than a Stat: My Son Is Obese

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Written by Erin Ruggaber Howard for Brain, Child Magazine

There are lots of words I would use to describe my 7-year-old son Ben.* Sturdy comes to mind. Solid also gets thrown around a lot. And yet, after Ben's recent well-child appointment, I had to throw out Solid and Sturdy and replace them with two far less pleasant adjectives -- Overweight and Obese.

The pediatrician flashed her electronic tablet at me, pointing to the Blue Zone -- the healthy BMI range -- and following my Ben's line up the chart as it shot straight into the White Zone. The Danger Zone. She tilted the screen away from Ben so he couldn't see. Almost guiltily, she made a few brief suggestions about healthy foods and increased activity, and we moved on. Quickly. I guess she didn't want to embarrass him. Or me.

Ben just doesn't look obese. Not to me, anyway. I'm sure a trained eye would detect the slight pudge around his middle, the thin padding that smooths over the ridges of his rib cage. To me, he looked healthy, and that's scary. Normally, I'm pretty on top of this Mom thing. I'm quick to pick up on symptoms -- the wheeze that denotes an allergy trigger or the rash that's our first clue of Strep. I'm observant, darn it! How could I miss this one!

Looking back, there were clues. When he was a toddler, Ben's sister found some of my banana scented Burt's Bees hand cream and fed it to Ben with a doll spoon. He ate it. All of it. He's always been a big eater like that. It doesn't matter if he's hungry. I guess it doesn't even matter if it's food -- he seemed happy enough with hand cream.

And of course Ben's swimming in my husband's gene pool. Phil is the very definition of a Big Guy. We have to order his Size 16s from a website called "BigShoes.com." No joke. When I do laundry and pull out a pair of pants that is almost bigger than I am, I think, "Wow, these are 'Big Man Jeans.'" Then I chuckle to myself, because my husband has both "Big Man Jeans" and "Big Man Genes." I get really bored when I do laundry.

Just like his dad, Ben has "Big Man Genes." Undoubtedly, he will someday also have "Big Man Jeans." Does that mean I should throw up my hands, throw out the BMI chart, and go on as I've been? So. Tempting.

Since that fateful doctor's appointment, I've taken a good look at our family's eating and exercise habits, and the truth is we aren't perfect, but we aren't doing that bad. It's not like I handed Ben a bag of Cheetos and a six pack of Coke with a cheery "Enjoy your video games, Dearie, I'm off to Bingo." We're an active family who eats home-cooked dinners around the kitchen table. It's all very Rockwell-ian. Those "Big Man Genes" must be a big part of the equation because Ben's three siblings (who all happened to have joined the family through adoption) are perfectly balanced. The three of them are nestled comfortably in the healthy Blue Zone on their own nicely curving growth lines, while Ben's chart shoots straight up into the Danger Zone like a profile of Mt. Everest.

I could shrug this whole BMI thing off. Ben's a Big Guy and that's the way it is. After all, I'm sure Phil went through his whole childhood hearing, "Oh, he's just big boned" and he turned out all right. OK, not exactly all right when it comes to this issue -- it's a struggle for him to stay under the 300-pound mark now that his football and wrestling days are behind him -- but he's got low blood pressure, low cholesterol and normal blood sugar. And he's charming, well-adjusted, spontaneous and a great dad. That has to count for something.

But from long years of experience watching Phil's battle to stay under 300, I know it is much easier to maintain a healthy weight than to try to shed unhealthy extra pounds. Even if Ben is "big boned," I need to teach him how to make healthy choices -- now.

No more hot-and-ready pizzas when I'm running late. No more ice cream every sweltering afternoon. No more granola bars for breakfast. But the biggest change needs to come from Ben himself.

When we were out to lunch a couple of weeks ago, Ben and I split a club sandwich and tomato soup. For the first time, I noticed that we ate the exact same amount -- me a grown woman and him a 7-year-old boy. As soon as his food was gone he glanced over at his little sister's plate. There was half a grilled cheese sandwich, just sitting there, all tempting. "Are you going to eat that?" he asked casually, already reaching across the table.

"Are you still hungry?" I asked. He thought about it for a second. "I'm not really hungry anymore ... but I'm not full either." Ah-Ha! Breakthrough! Still holding his hand gently, I looked him in the eye. "This is what full feels like," I said. "Right now. 'Not hungry anymore' is the same as 'full.' You don't want to eat until you feel sick, do you?" Sadly, I think he had to consider it. Eventually he shook his head, and I quickly removed little sister's temptingly half-empty plate. One small victory.

It's a weird balance -- teaching Ben to make healthy choices without getting carried away. I feel a sadness that Ben is now a national statistic -- one more of those 32 percent of American kids who are overweight or obese -- and it would be easy to get carried away trying to "fix" him. But doubling down to reduce his BMI percentage? That's the wrong goal. That BMI thing is just a tool. It doesn't tell the whole story. It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Like those black knit winter gloves I naively brought home for my ham-fisted hubby when we were newlyweds, the BMI chart is at best one-size-fits-most.

The goal has to be a healthy Ben -- whatever that is -- and not a dot on a chart. I've got to let go of my Mommy Guilt and admit that healthy Ben might never be a Blue Zone kind of guy. But healthy habits, healthy choices for the whole family, will go a long way toward making sure those "Big Man Jeans" never get too big.

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*"Ben" is a pseudonym.

Erin Ruggaber Howard is a freelance historian and writer, and a SAHM to four children. She has written for Adoptive Families, Adoption Today, Chicago Parent, and Brain, Child exploring issues of parenting, adoption, and racial identity.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Visit Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we've been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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