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Obesity Presumption #2: Health Habits Form in Early Childhood

Continuing this series, we now turn our attention to obesity presumption #2 from the New England Journal of Medicine paper on obesity myths, presumptions and facts.

Remember, that the authors define presumptions as commonly held beliefs that are yet unproven.

Presumption #2 is stated as,

“Early childhood is the period during which we learn exercise and eating habits that influence our weight throughout life.”

The notion behind this presumption is the fact that body weight indexes, eating behaviors, and preferences that are present in early childhood are correlated with those later in life.

Note the word “correlated” in the above sentence – as we all know, correlation is not causation!

As a father of three grown children, each of who turned out wonderfully different, I can attest to the fact that certain behavioural traits and patterns do persist into adult life – but that is not the question.

The question is, whether or not my parental influence (or anyone else’s) had anything to do with this.

As readers may be well aware, there is a vast body of credible literature that describes the uncanny similarities between genetically identical twins (including those separated at birth) compared to non-identical twins (including those raised together).

Call me a sceptic if you may, but while I have my own doubts on what role great parents may play in shaping their kids behaviours and preferences, I have absolutely no doubt at all that poor parenting can damage those behaviours and preferences once and for all.

Thus, while I have no idea how to make a kid with no musical talent love to play a musical instrument, I have no doubt at all, that I could get any kid (talent or no talent) to hate it.

Similarly, while I have no idea how to make a kid with no interest in sports to show interest, I have no doubt that I can get even the most enthusiastic athletic kid to drop out of phys-ed.

Along these lines, while I have no idea how to instil healthy eating habits and a healthy self-image in a kid, I for sure know how to destroy any desire for healthy foods and shatter any self-image for life.

Thus, while parents may spend a lot of time and effort on schlepping the horse to water, there is little they can do make to actually make it drink – certainly no amount of persuasion, reasoning, or physical harm will have the desired effect. At best, it will come to fear and perhaps shy away from water only to wither away from thirst. While dragging the horse to water provides opportunity, ultimately, it will be the horse who decides whether or not it actually needs a drink.

I think that preferences (including those for foods and activity) are more genetic than we like to think and that if anything, parental modelling (do as I do not as I say) and support are the best we can offer.

I have yet to see orthorexic nutritional coddling translate into anything other than an adult with an unhealthy relationship and preoccupation with food – unfortunately, I have heard far too many stories of how the parental food police (whether qualitative or quantitative) resulted in little more than in “food rebellion”, especially as those kids turn into teenagers and assert their new-found independence.

So if you asked me about parental influences in early childhood – Positive influence? Perhaps – Negative influence? Absolutely!

Edmonton, AB


  1. “…I have no idea how to instil healthy eating habits and a healthy self-image in a kid, I for sure know how to destroy any desire for healthy foods and shatter any self-image for life.”

    That’s disappointing.

    There are people who CAN develop musical talent, or athletic talent, in kids. I have one kid who is an excellent amateur musician, and another who is a national level athlete. As parents we provided time and enthusiasm … but when the child needed more than we personally could give we relied on professionals for advice and teaching and coaching.

    You’re the professional, the expert, in obesity. You are in touch with everything going on in Canadian obesity research and prevention and treatment.

    I would have hoped that you and your colleagues would have something to offer to help parents instil good eating habits in their childrens’ lives.

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  2. I’ve met more than a few musicians who were outright traumatized by their parents, who discovered late in life, how to reclaim their natural love for music despite the rubble under which their parents and antagonistic teachers had buried it. One woman struggled for a long time with pain and tension from a sadistic violin teacher, and still searches for a way to learn the instrument that, deep down, she wants to play.

    She will succeed, mostly because I know she is still searching, and is surrounded by sympathetic people.

    It constantly amazes me how quick you are to relegate people to the hopeless Failure Pile. Events like the Paralympics wouldn’t even exist if all doctors were like you.

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  3. @Anonymous: the positive message is in the sentence, “do as I do not as i say” – I think the most powerful impact that parents can have on their kids is leading by example.

    @Janis, you are so correct in that adults can overcome and recapture their “natural” talents and desires. And there is certainly no limit in the power of people (your paralympic example is well-taken) to overcome hardships and adversity.

    Yet, the point I was making was not that it is impossible to overcome the damage done to children but rather that it is so much easier to do such damage than to get kids to adopt lifelong healthy habits.

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  4. I know so many people who are neurotic about their FOOD that it is sad. They won’t put anything in their mouth that doesn’t meet their exact and ever-more restrictive standards. Every meal is a science project, and their obsession with eating what they define as the “healthy diet” perfectly is pathetic. Inviting them over for dinner is a waste and will only lead to hard feelings on both sides. What is really ironic is that they have no idea if what they eat is “healthy.” The research simply isn’t there.

    Starting them out that way from childhood is tragic. On the bright side, they will probably rebel later.

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  5. “Early childhood is the period during which we learn exercise and eating habits that influence our weight throughout life.”

    Yes and no. Granted, our early childhood is, indeed, a period during which we learn what our parents believe to be right and wrong eating habits. And then we go to school.

    In school we learn (from our peers) that we don’t have to do as our parents have instructed nor shown us. In school we fall prey to peer pressure, and no matter how much our parents taught us through leading by example, and with wise decision making quizzes, we want to fit in with our peers. So it’s still “monkey see; monkey do”, but this time it can result in damaging consequences.

    Does an early induction to healthy eating habits preclude teen and/or adult obesity? I don’t think so.

    There are too many unexpected life variables tossed on our individual paths to state, with any degree of certainty, that the eating habits we learn during early childhood have a marked impact on our weight throughout life.

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