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Child Obesity is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is a combination of words that gets your attention. Lately, the term “child abuse” has been linked with the child obesity epidemic.

Broaching the issue in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. David Ludwig, a child obesity expert from Boston, argued that children who are morbidly obese and near death should be considered for removal from their parents, and the environment they live in.

This begs the question: Is ignoring, and therefore allowing, child obesity a form of child abuse?

That’s a tough question to answer, and here’s why:

Studies show that in many cases, parents don’t even recognize that their child is overweight or obese. A study in Preventing Chronic Disease details this low awareness, even among the educated. Researchers found 90% of parents of preschoolers classified their children as normal weight, when in fact they were overweight. And when you look at cultural norms, child obesity recognition can become even more difficult.

If parents don’t see it, how can they help or take action?

Many parents suspect there may be problems with their child’s weight, but don’t know where to turn for help. It is not uncommon for parents to hear the advice, “Don’t worry, your child will grow out of it,” which may undermine their concerns and potentially delay needed help.

If parents are really concerned, they may start combing the web looking for information, only to find a hodge-podge of conflicting, alarming statistics, information, and a lack of actionable steps. Or parents take things into their own hands, adopting adult practices such as dieting or a forced march to the gym, all in an effort to reverse their child’s weight. And this gets parents caught up in practices that may be counter-productive to producing a healthy weight, such as restricting, pressuring or controlling their child’s eating.

And then there’s the obesogenic environment (fancy term for the prevalence of large amounts of calorie-dense foods, sedentary-promoting activities and commercialism that encourages eating) which makes it challenging for even the most educated, nutrition-savvy folk to navigate.

And lastly, there’s intention. Most parents I know never intended for obesity to enter their family. In fact, a big fear amongst parents is that they will have an obese child, or somehow contribute to this situation in some way.

Child obesity is complicated. Reversing it is even harder. Preventing it may prove to be the trickiest stunt of all.

It’s not about eating, folks, it’s about feeding kids. And we haven’t been giving parents the “on the job” training they need: education, resources and support to do a good job of feeding their kids. After all, it is an 18+ year job.

When parents know about feeding their kids (what to feed them, how to feed them, and why to feed them), they have a better chance at recognizing child obesity, advocating for help when their child needs it, discerning helpful from hindering nutrition information, and navigating the obesogenic environment.

Whether you are for or against the child abuse connection, children are surely the victims.

What do you think about this?


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  1. Abuse is a strong word; one that insinuates a certain amount of intent, in my opinion. Neglect would probably be more appropriate. We wouldn’t think twice about charging a parent who does not feed his or her child enough with neglect, why do we balk at the idea that a parent who feeds too much (or otherwise inappropriately in such a way that has a strong likelihood to result in health complications) is also guilty of neglecting their child’s health and well-being?

    As a woman who struggles with her weight as an adult I can vouch for both the mental and physical ramifications of piling extra weight on a frame, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Especially not when that frame is still growing.

    1. Hi Diana, yes extra weight on a growing frame is a tough road to hoe. The reason I balk at pointing the finger at parents is because there is so much more to childhood obesity than just parent neglect. Our day-to-day environment contributes to the problem, and even the most conscientious parents have a lot of obstacles to overcome (school, community, low active environments, media, etc). And i really do believe that most parents are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have; and when they know better they do better (not all, but most).
      i appreciate your perspective. Thanks.

  2. my husband’s side of the family is obese and we have a 20 month old and another due in may. right now, our 20 month loves fruits, veggies, diary and grains, but not so big in the meat department.

    i kinda wish the article listed ways in preventing obesity … the ways of how, what and why …

    1. Hi–for more on prevention, read my Why Weight? series–12 posts all related to preventing obesity in children. This post was more an opinion post. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you visit frequently!

  3. I’d never heard the term “obesogenic environment” before but that certainly is what we are surrounded with. You can’t escape the messages about eating, eating, eating as a form of socializing. Or it’s offered as a reward. And parents who start harping on kids to lose weight often get the opposite effect, or, even if the child loses weight, he or she might develop an eating disorder. (did the parent cause the child’s anorexia? Is THAT abuse?
    Tough call. But I think I’d have to say it’s a big stretch to call it “abuse.”

    1. I agree with you. The term “child abuse” opens up a whole new can of worms. I think there is more intentionality with abuse than what we see in the case of child obesity. Conversely, I think, as you mentioned, the over-attention or under-attention to the issue can cause more harm than good.