How does it feel when your child is labelled obese?
“WHAT’S for tea, mum?”
A chirpy, confident little boy of nine wants to know.
“Fresh salmon, asparagus, new potatoes and corn on the cob,” says his mum. And the little lad’s face lights up.
You’re forgiven for thinking you’ve just stepped into some government health commercial, with a cast of actors hellbent on portraying a happy, healthy family lifestyle.
Here’s the reality check.
We are in a kitchen on Sheffield’s Woodthorpe estate. Adam, the beaming boy, gets called names most days at school and his mum is regularly brought to tears by the distress it causes him.
He is classed by medics as clinically obese; the kids just call him fat. A boy of his age should have a Body Mass Index of 16.8. Five months ago, it was 30.5.
He and his parents have taken the brave decision to talk to The Star about how it feels to live with the social stigma of obesity because they want people to understand that it hurts when people call him names and that the family does not live on fat-laden junk food.
“We don’t eat rubbish and we never have. Adam absolutely loves fruit and vegetables,” says his dad Steve, 55, a slim man who suffers from a heart complaint and diabetes.
“Adam was a normal, slim little boy. In fact we thought he was a bit on the thin side. He gained weight after having his tonsils out. Then he had to go back into hospital for surgery on his fingers, which were curving inwards. Afterwards, he quickly became overweight.
“He started getting teased at school. He would come home and ask: “Dad, why are they saying I’m fat?” I had to explain, very gently, to him, that he had got chubby; he hadn’t seen it for himself.”
Lynn, 50, is overweight and knows that her size reinforces the stereotype. “People look at Adam and think he must be greedy. They look at me and judge me without even knowing me. They think I feed my kids rubbish. I am on medication for a thyroid problem. Don’t think I haven’t questioned myself or blamed myself for this,” she says. Yet the family say their tight budget has never been stretched by takeaways, sweets and treats.
Lynn says: “Adam liked chocolate, but he never went mad. We used to have the occasional fish and chips. Looking back, I think his main vice was cereals. He’d have a big bowl for breakfast and supper. I thought it was healthy at the time. I’ve always wanted both my boys to get more exercise, but we live on a dangerous main road and I don’t want my children running loose like feral animals. We’ve always taken them to the park and to indoor play centres.”
His parents started cutting down his food and when that didn’t work, they took him to the GP last summer.
The Stradbroke Primary pupil was referred to the SHINE Health Academy and he joined last September.
His week is now crammed with activity. On Monday nights it’s Cubs; on Tuesdays he goes to SHINE straight from school. On Wednesdays there’s film club and gardening club is on a Thursday. Every Saturday he’s at SHINE’s gym at Springs Leisure Centre, loving his time on the running machine and the stepper. A swimming session follows dancercise sessions, then there’s a long group walk back to SHINE’s base at Steel Inn on the Manor. Sundays is no day of rest; he’s helping SHINE fund-raise by packing carrier bags at Asda before playing on the trampoline with his brother Thomas, seven.
The whole family has embraced the healthy eating advice given to them by SHINE. Says Lynn: “In the supermarket I’m reading all the labels, counting the calories, the fat and carbohydrate content.”
And yet, five months in, and having tried so hard, Adam’s weight is the same and he is heart-broken. His waist is an inch smaller and his BMI has come down to 29.5 and his tutors at SHINE are telling him that’s the most important thing.
But he wants to see that number on the weighing scales coming down.
Lynn and Steve are constantly trying to raise his spirits. “Once your child is overweight, it’s a really hard thing to fix,” she says.
And in the meantime, she wishes with all her heart that people who pour abuse on the overweight would think about the pain they cause. “I want to protect him, but I can’t,” she says.
‘I never realised that I was gaining a lot of weight’
“BEFORE I went to SHINE, I was so foolish,” this adorable little boy tells me with a shake of a head now wise beyond its years.
“I never realised I was gaining a lot of weight. I was nine stones but I didn’t know,” he says, eyes round, face earnest.
“I was out of breath in PE and I got told I couldn’t play centre forward when we played football because I wasn’t fast enough.
“I was getting called fat and I was really upset. Kids don’t realise how bad it is to be the fat one and how hard it is to lose weight.”
Adam knows if he hadn’t joined SHINE, he would have got “bigger and bigger.” But there’s another reason he loves it; he is among scores of new friends. No one calls you fat at SHINE, he says.
And he knows his future is in his hands: “I have got to manage myself. I’ve learned to have a small cup of cereal and a jacket potato only as big as my fist and that sometimes, like when I’m on the computer, I only want to eat out of habit,” he says.
“When I’m an adult I want to be slim and healthy with an OK BMI and have healthy children. I have got to accept it is going to take a really long time and I’ve just got to keep trying.”
SHINE is based at Alison Crescent on The Manor. Its next 12-week course starts in April. Phone: 0114 2835955 www.shinehealthacademy.org.uk
Giving children a chance to SHINE
Obesity has become the new cancer - a scourge of society that fills people with fear.
“They are afraid of it because they don’t understand how to deal with it,” says Kath Sharman, the Sheffield woman who, since 2003, has made it her sole aim to make the city’s obese children slimmer, happier and healthier.
It’s an uphill struggle; child obesity levels are growing. Latest statistics in Sheffield show that one in five 11-year-olds and one in 10 four- and five-year-olds have been classified as obese.
Kath runs SHINE Health Academy, which aims to change the lives of 200 obese children aged 10 to 17 referred to its healthy lifestyle programme each year.
But getting families on board for change can be incredibly difficult, says Kath: “People are afraid of the obese label.
“When parents get a letter telling them their son or daughter has been assessed as overweight at school, the attitude is: how dare someone label my child? If the letter had told them their child had a treatable illness, their reaction would be very different.”
She detests the stigma attached to overweight people. “Everyone is quick to assume they are greedy and lazy, but the reasons go much deeper than that.
“Many young people we work with experience life traumas such as bereavements, low self-esteem, depression, bullying and abuse and they use food as an emotional comfort like an adult may smoke or drink alcohol.
“Foods high in fat and sugar are highly satisfying and inhibit part of the brain that produces stress hormones and related emotions. They serve a purpose,” explains Kath.
“Removing these foods from the diet often affects the ability of the young person to cope with their life. They start to crave these foods and regress quickly back to unhealthy eating patterns.”
SHINE helps its young members through sport and gym sessions structured to their ability. “Exercise produces the same endorphins in the brain that fatty foods do,” Kath explains.
She wants more research into the psychological reasons for obesity. “There is a huge link between obesity and depression. But what hasn’t been proven is which leads to which.
“We need to address the triggers; only then will we achieve long term outcomes in obesity management,” she warns.