Why Parents Don't Want to Hear About Food Addiction, Part 2


Child obesity expert Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, recently writing for The Huffington Post, provided a pediatrician’s view of a controversial legal issue. In South Carolina, the mother of a 555-pound teenager was slammed with a criminal neglect charge. Her son was removed from her custody, and she faces a possible 15-year prison sentence. This is the first felony case in the United States based on childhood obesity, but it won’t be the last.

Dolgoff worries about parents being falsely blamed. She discusses a British family that was recently in peril, when social workers wanted to put their dangerously large children in foster care. Fortunately, in this case, a doctor named Sadaf Forooqi found that a gene deletion was at the root of the problem. These parents are not culpable of anything, and neither are many others who are potentially vulnerable to accusations.

How much responsibility can parents really be expected to shoulder, in a time when most kids have access to transportation, and most parents are busier than ever trying to make ends meet? Dr. Dolgoff speaks of her own morbidly obese patients, whose mothers and fathers are in despair. Once you have resorted to padlocking the refrigerator, what more is there? And nobody wants to see matters progress to the point where a doctor is sued for malpractice, because a child patient fails to slim down.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider something Dr. Dolgoff does not mention: the food addiction paradigm. What does this extreme security remind us of? In hospitals and medical practice offices, the pharmaceuticals are locked up tight, to keep dangerous drugs out of the hands of addicts. The fact that some parents take such an extreme step as locking the fridge says that a force very much like addiction is at work here.

It’s complicated. A home where parents have the leisure to micro-manage the eating habits of teenagers is a household with worse problems than obesity. On the other hand, sometimes parents do have to take a stand. But what good does it do? The doctor says,

Yet these kids still manage to gain access to food… And if we do decide to charge parents of obese kids with child abuse, where do we draw the line?

Dr. Dolgoff is enlightening on the subjects of genetic predisposition and the effects of leptin, a protein that acts on the brain to regulate hunger. She says that genetic defects cause childhood obesity in fewer than 10 percent of cases, but does that mean that parents must take 90 percent of the blame?

Though teenagers can be a law unto themselves, smaller children are pretty much at the mercy of their parents’ habits and preferences, so we moms and dads must admit to more responsibility there. Other forces are at work, too. Dr. Dolgoff goes on to make a very salient point:

Many families live in unsafe areas where kids can’t simply go outside to play. These children are often kept indoors for their own safety. And what do these kids do while cooped up in the house? Eat and watch television [link is ours], more risk factors for weight gain. How can we blame parents for these inequities?

The issue of prosecuting the parents of morbidly obese kids for child abuse is potentially explosive. No one wants to bring on the nightmare scenario of kids ending up in foster homes or institutionalized, and these two fates are almost inevitably linked. When minors are relegated to foster care, there isn’t always a suitable place to put them, or, for some reason, the placement doesn’t work out, and they are removed from the foster home until other arrangements can be made. They have to be someplace in the meantime, and if you’ve never heard of MacLaren Hall, it’s worth looking up.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Should Child Obesity Be Considered Child Abuse?,” The HuffingtonPost, 04/13/10
Image by srqpix, used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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