03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Obesity Problem Starts At Birth: Parents Giving Children Too Much Food

I was sitting in a booth at the local Chinese restaurant and doing what I do all the time: baby watching. I am a frustrated grandfather wanna-be. I love observing babies and listening to their babble and infectious laughter. I pay attention to the interplay between parents and baby, and I marvel at the naturalness of the encounters, even with new parents. Some interactions, however, cause me a great deal of concern.

For example, on this particular evening, I was watching a mother and her five-month-old baby, fascinated with the interaction and the obvious joy they felt with one another. The baby caught me watching and gave me a little smile that only an infant possesses. She then turned back toward her mother and started showing signs of boredom. She squirmed and emitted sounds of annoyance, reaching up with her hands and attempting to get her mother to take her out of her booster seat. Instead, her mother immediately shoved a bottle into her mouth. The baby took the bottle and sucked for a few seconds but clearly was not hungry. She turned her head, temporarily succeeding at dislodging the bottle, only to have her mother shove it straight back into her mouth. The baby was practically screaming, "I'm not hungry!" but her mother was so intent on simply keeping her daughter quiet that she totally ignored the message being sent to her.

Babies have only so many ways of letting us know about their needs, and crying is one of them. Indeed, it may be the best and surest way of getting our attention. Unfortunately, babies are then stuck with only one good signal for conveying many different messages. Many parents immediately think, "The baby is hungry. I need to feed it." Some think, "The baby is crying. The last time I gave it food it stopped crying."

Babies are not always hungry when they cry. They will let you know when they are, and they will let you know when they are not. If they are truly hungry, then eating will calm them down immediately. If they are not, then no amount of food will settle them down. They will eat when they need to, and when they are full, they will quit. Humans are born with a satiety center in the brain that controls hunger, and infants are much attuned to this natural instinct that prevents us from overeating. Perhaps they are even more attuned to it, not yet conditioned by society and culture.

Episodes like what I witnessed in the restaurant contribute to the obesity problem we face in this country. Parents do not pay attention to the actual needs of their children and are too eager to think food is the answer. As a consequence, their children do end up thinking food is the solution to all their problems. How often do you see someone overeating after a bad break-up, after getting fired, or perhaps just on a "bad day?" We use food to satisfy a need, even if that need is not hunger.

The baby I witnessed was trying as hard as she could to avoid that bottle. Her mother kept shoving the bottle at her, and the baby finally gave up and began drinking her formula. The infant came to the realization that her mother would not relent until she ate, so she did. She drank several ounces but refused to finish the bottle, and her mother finally got the message and picked her up, which was what the baby wanted in the first place.

Over time, this baby will equate eating with pleasing her mother, even when hunger is not an issue. She will no longer trust her instincts to sense hunger, but will be conditioned to eat when presented with food. As she grows older, her parents and grandparents will order her to finish her plate, to not waste. These days, society has dictated new eating norms. Restaurant portions are larger, plates are larger, and everything is super-sized. This baby will think that all of that is normal, even when exorbitantly over the top. If she does not see it coming, she might become another obese American.

While I was making my observations, I was eating my dinner, and the beef fried rice happened to be especially delicious. I had my fill, but there was some rice left on the serving plate, and not wanting to waste it, I began spooning the remains onto my plate. At that point, it dawned on me that I had not learned my lesson, even after my study of this infant's eating behavior. I put my fork down and asked for a take-out container.

Please note, it is not necessary to finish everything on your plate even if someone is telling you to. I say over and over, eat only when hungry and eat only as much as you need to satisfy your appetite.

Never make your children clean their plates. If they are unable to finish their portions, give them less next time. (Of course, do not let them get away with leaving only the vegetables!)

Pay attention to what you eat and how much you eat. Remember, you are the role model for your kids. Obese parents often have obese children, not just because of genetics, but also because of what they feed themselves and their children.