Holidays and Childhood Obesity

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This week, Americans are squeezed between two holidays typically observed by indulging in excess. No doubt, many people already look forward to January 1, when the new personal regime of health will begin. But first, there is still a whole lot of eating and drinking to get through.

The Christmas trauma still lingers, as some upset kid somewhere trudges into the mall to exchange a gift clothing item that was too small. This child, and many others, are also reflecting on remarks made by the relatives who show up once a year: “My goodness, aren’t you the growing boy!” and “You’re the very image of Uncle Mel, may he rest in peace. You remember, he had a coronary at 42.” Nice.

People tend to think of Christmas as more of a kids’ holiday, and New Year’s Eve as more of an adult enterprise, where kids are not so much at risk of overeating. But it’s not true. In households where New Year’s Eve is a big deal, of course the kids are affected. How can they not be?

In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow included many quotations from the kids who enter discussions or answer poll questions at They mention holidays again and again:

Jill, Age 15
Around the holidays I seem to gain a lot of weight. There are just too many temptations.

sk8ergirl, Age 16
I gained 3 pounds in three days! I am freaking out! My appetite got bigger! I am eating way too much junk… I HATE HOLIDAYS NOW!!!

Jane, Age 12
I am worried about thanksgiving. My grandparents always want us to eat more and more

Flower Fawn, Age 15
I want to be able to go to a mixer and feel confident and meet people, not hide in the corner and be the see-through fat girl. I’m SO SICK AND TIRED of that.… I really want to be 165 by December so that I can go to holiday mixers and my school’s Christmas dance…

Dr. Pretlow envisions a world in which communities would offer activities during holidays, and even counseling for kids who feel the need. The difficulty, of course, is finding adults to work on holidays. Fortunately, America has enough diversity so there are probably plenty of people who don’t at all mind working on Christmas. So this might be doable.

Dr. Stephen Pont, of the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity, offers advice on how to maintain healthful eating habits during the holidays in an easy-to-watch local news video. An announcement sums it up:

Families should plan ahead during this time of year and instead of grabbing that second cookie, keep apples and nuts for kids and adults to snack on. While your kids are out of school for winter break, it’s also a good time for the family to get out and exercise!

Food is just everywhere over the winter holidays. It’s either bought and cooked at home, or bought prepared, and people bring over more food, and some families even go out to eat in restaurants. Fancy gift-wrapped foodstuffs are exchanged. Treats are brought into the workplace, and some schools. The local bank offers cookies or chocolates to drop-in customers.

Throughout the Christmas to New Year’s week, it’s all about food. Even if the quality is high, there’s still a lot of it. But, more likely, it’s mostly junk food. Like any other holiday, New Year’s Eve offers rich opportunities for stress, especially if a child is already conscious of and/or actively worrying about her or his own encroaching obesity.

Depending on the family and other variables, kids have different scenarios, but they all lead to the same end: a child or teenager with the opportunity and the incentive — plenty of incentive — to pack in the calories.

It’s not unusual for solitary adults to be depressed in the holiday season. It happens to kids, too, especially the more vulnerable ones. Although a minor may be officially connected with other people, and have a family “on paper,” so to speak, she or he can suffer from another kind of loneliness. Shared custody, or any kind of contested custody, are family conditions that can create nightmare holidays. There are foster children and homeless kids, and kids in various other situations who might feel that food is their only friend, and if they can get their hands on some, they will eat it.

Conversely, the non-solitary are in for a different type of awfulness. The big, warm, embracing family can create its own brand of holiday hell. Children are expected to be good-tempered and to tolerate all kinds of personal remarks from relatives, and to hang out with kids they would not normally choose to associate with, just because they’re cousins. Everyone had better be present and accounted for at all times, no sneaking off to be with friends or, worse yet, alone. The requirement to stay gathered round all the time is very stressful for some people, especially sensitive children.

In other families, the bribery factor enters. The adults are just as happy for the kids to vanish. In fact, they will pay to make them go away. Depending on geography and available resources, grownups can shut the kids up in a room with a TV and several bags of junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages. Or slip them a few bucks and turn them loose downtown, or at the mall or the cineplex. Even if such a healthful venue as a skating rink happens to be open on a holiday, junk food will be available and will be consumed.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Eating well during the holiday season,”, 12/24/11
Image by terren in Virginia, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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