Why One Mom Put Her 7-Year-Old On A Diet

Feb 19, 2013
Originally published on February 22, 2013 11:29 am

Over the past few years, there's been a spotlight on the growing number of overweight and obese children in America. Today, more parents are paying close attention to what their kids eat and how often they exercise. While many parents might balk at the idea of putting a 7-year-old on a diet, that's what Dara-Lynn Weiss did. She speaks with NPR's Michel Martin about the ordeal, which she recalls in her new memoir, The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet.

"Before I had an obese child, I had very clear ideas about what caused childhood obesity and what would fix childhood obesity. And I very much blamed parents of obese children for not feeding their children properly, for not seeing to it that they had healthy habits or got enough exercise," Weiss says. But Weiss found that her family didn't fit that stereotype. She tried adjusting her daughter's meals and activity, but the weight didn't budge. Finally, during her daughter's checkup, the doctor suggested that it was time to do something.

Putting her daughter on a diet wasn't easy. At times, Bea (not her real name) rebelled by eating pizza and cookies at school. Weiss found herself arguing with family, friends and other parents about nutrition. Once, she got into a verbal altercation with a Starbucks barista over the calorie count in a child's hot chocolate. Eventually, after a year, Bea dropped the weight.

Weiss acknowledges that her decision was controversial. But she says being "the heavy" is part of good parenting. Making unpopular and complicated decisions is part of being "the tough one for the best interest of the child," she says.

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Remember the phrase you used to see on t-shirts back in the day, that the personal is political? Well, our next guest has a story that's something like that.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than a third of American children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and that number has more than doubled in the last few decades. So a lot of parents these days are paying a lot more attention to what their kids eat and how much exercise they get.

But Dara-Lynn Weiss took it to a whole other level when she saw that her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, was putting on a lot of excess weight and seemingly was unable to control her eating habits. Dara-Lynn put her on a diet and sometimes, it was not pretty.

Dara-Lynn Weiss writes about the ups and downs of this journey in her new book. It's called "The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet." And Dara-Lynn Weiss is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DARA-LYNN WEISS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the title, "The Heavy," which is a nice play on words. You know, it refers to the fact that your daughter was getting heavy, but also to you. You want to talk about that? That you had to be...

WEISS: Sure.

MARTIN: ...the...

WEISS: The heavy, indeed. This was something - the title definitely refers to me, and it refers to a role that all parents have to play as good parents at some point, which is doing the unpopular thing, which is making a difficult decision, a complicated decision - one that the child might disagree with, that peers might disagree with, but the need to be the tough one, for the best interests of the child.

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit about what specifically made you so concerned?

WEISS: Well, I would say Bea certainly had approached a food that was markedly different from other children. Her weight was certainly higher than the norm, but just her interest in food, her inability to regulate her food intake, her appetite, it was somewhat alarming, just compared to her brother or her peers. But I didn't necessarily feel it was something that required any intervention, that it was anything that was a danger to her health.

It was something that we put very much our faith in her pediatrician to advise us. And as, you know, her years passed and her weight situation worsened, the pediatrician did shift from saying don't worry about this, wait and see, she could grow out of this, to, you know, when she was six and seven, basically saying this is a trend that seems to be worsening rather than improving and you do need to intervene and help get her on a better track.

MARTIN: You know, this is interesting because this is the kind of conversation that Michelle Obama, the First Lady, has reported having with her own pediatrician, you know, before her family was in the White House and that got her interested in child nutrition and childhood obesity. Do you think that it was specific to Bea, or do you think it's just in general that something's kind of gotten out of whack?

WEISS: I feel that it's such a complicated issue and that's part of what I found so interesting about it is before I had an obese child I had very clear ideas about what caused childhood obesity and what would fix childhood obesity, and I very much blamed parents of obese children for not feeding their children properly, for not seeing to it that they had healthy habits or got enough exercise.

And I found that my particular family situation didn't sort of fit that stereotype, and I think, you know, one of the very first page of my book I write that, you know, all healthy weight children are healthy in the same way and all overweight or obese children get there in a very individual way. I have two children, and they're a year apart in age, and they're raised in the same environment with the same parents and access to the same food and activity, and one maintains a healthy weight with no effort and the other became obese. So I felt it was so individual, even within our own family.

MARTIN: We're talking with Dara-Lynn Weiss. She made the controversial decision to put her daughter, Bea, on a diet when she was seven years old. She recounts her story in her new memoir, "The Heavy." And I use the word controversial because just about every decision you made along the way is something that people have opinions about, right, including whether to name the problem and how to name the problem.

I'm going to read from the book you write: (Reading) I wanted Bea to feel good about herself and her body but was preaching this kind of self-acceptance wrong if she was actually overweight. Should I teach her to be comfortable with a body that the rest of society distains, that the medical community cautioned against and that her father and I personally tried to avoid?

So how did you weigh that? What was the tipping factor for you?

WEISS: Well, I came to this in my own personal experience as someone who struggled with her weight but was never obese. And what I felt was much more damaging and painful problem I had was just sort of the psychological baggage around food and self-esteem that I had. And I very much wanted to spare my daughter that experience. I advocate for size acceptance and I embrace any effort to make people feel comfortable at any size, provided that it's at a healthy weight.

MARTIN: There are a number of things in the book that got a lot of attention, and I also want to mention here that the book started out - well, at first there was an article in Vogue, which appeared in April of 2012, and that got a lot of attention and then the book, you know, subsequently, which has just come out. And there have been a number of things that just people are really fixed on, like the Starbucks incident, right, where you dressed down a barista because he couldn't tell you the exact calories in the child's hot chocolate.

And then you write about how you grabbed the drink out of her hands and poured it in the garbage and stormed out. And a lot of people think like lady what's up with you?


WEISS: That was one of many lady-what's-up-with-you experiences that I have gone through and continue to go through. And that was one of the motivating factors for trying to put this story out there, is that I understood people think I'm crazy. People look and me and say, why wouldn't you let your daughter finish that hot chocolate? Why would you be stressed about her wanting a salad after she already finished her dinner?

Why would you deny her a cookie at a birthday party after she's had a piece of cake? That all of these moments that, you know, in the absence of nuance and backstory and understanding of what the family's trying to do, I hope that there would be a bit more understanding.

MARTIN: Do you feel though, in a way, that people are being - I don't know how to put this in sort of a neutral way - kind of ridiculous in a way because if she were allergic to peanuts, if she were allergic to eggs, if her health were threatened by a common, you know, allergy, you would snatch something out her hand. You'd get tough with people.

You'd say she can't have that. It's life threatening. So why is it that you think people are so reactive to something that you also have deemed with medical advice, could also be life threatening?

WEISS: Well, I approach it very much as you said. I said I'm going to treat this exactly like a nut allergy and I think people found that too harsh and I think that's part of the problem with how we approach obesity. We want there to be this sort of soft approach that is not so strict and is not so severe in the eyes of our children. And that I found that the only way to combat this was with strictness and with severity, and with saying we're going to set limits and we're going to uphold those limits.

MARTIN: So how is Bea and how are you? And how is your relationship? I think that's a question that a lot of people have, is I know you've had your moments. She said you are not a nice mommy.

WEISS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Mean mommy.

WEISS: Well that's, you know, that issue is one that I certainly grappled with and that I did make the decision that, you know, this is one of those decisions in parenting where we can't necessarily be friends and I have to be a parent, and that while the fun mom in me would love to give her a second cupcake, the good mom in me knows I need to set that limit and that even if it makes her unhappy in that moment.

MARTIN: How's her health?

WEISS: She is at a healthy weight now still and she has adopted these better habits in a way that is incredibly gratifying as a parent to see. And I write in the book about the proudest moment in this entire process was just last summer when she went away to sleep-away camp for three weeks and was in an incredibly challenging food environment in terms of amounts of food and kinds of food and possibilities of making bad choices, and that she managed it totally independently.

And as a parent, that's what you hope for, that you give them tools and that you send them out into the world and that you hope they make the right choices, and so far she seems to be doing that and she still loves me and I still enjoy being with her every bit as much as we used to. But we do exercise tremendous vigilance. We don't go out for cake as much as we used to, and we can't. And that's a bummer but we still can be happy even without it.

MARTIN: Dara-Lynn Weiss, her new memoir is called, "The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet," and she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Dara-Lynn Weiss, thanks so much for joining us and best wishes to your family and especially to Bea.

WEISS: Thank you so much, Michel.


MARTIN: We want to continue this conversation about children and weight and next we'll hear from our diverse panel of moms about what they do to keep their kids fit and healthy. We'll hear more about the challenges that come along with that in just a minute. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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