Skinny kids play video games too

The neurologist stopped on his way out of the room to speak directed to G. “You need to put down the video games once in a while. Get out and get some exercise, okay?” Then he walked out the door.

I was stunned. We had just finished discussing G’s weight gain. Not only did he hear me list all G’s activities–bike riding, swimming, gymnastics, playing tag with the neighborhood kids, the three trips we made to the ice rink each week–he also also agreed that the medications G was taking could both increase appetite and slow his metabolic rate. And yet, the doctor still felt he needed to take a parting shot at G, who, yes, had been distracted by a video game during most of the appointment. That was that whole reason we had iPads–to distract our kids so we could occasionally have adult conversations.

During check-out I learned the doctor referred us to a nutritionist. The only revenge was to go through with the appointment and prove food was not the problem. I was health food crazy–whole grain, organic, and fresh and without labels. My husband had recently lost 60 pounds. I would have defied anyone to find a grain of sugar in our house.

And so, a few weeks later I smiled tensely in the small room while the nutritionist looked over the food diary we’d been asked to keep. G sat attentive and ready, on his best behavior, to answer her questions. She didn’t see any red flags, so she suggested that perhaps he was getting food from friends at school or getting a hot lunch in addition to bringing his lunch. G defended himself, and I shook off the patronizing look she tried to give me. “He only eats what I pack him,” I assured her.

She moved on to a shelf filled with a variety of brightly-colored packages. There she pointed out cereals, snack bars, kid-themed yogurt, soda and fruit juices, all of which were banned in our house. She asked G to tell her which foods were healthy and which were unhealthy. He scanned the packages from Dannon, Kellogg, Nabisco, and Kraft searching for something familiar. “I don’t know what any of those things are. I don’t think any of them are healthy.”

“Well, some of them are very healthy,” she explained. “Do you know what a nutrition label is?” G shook his head and she decided she was finally on to something. She compared a couple of cereal nutrition labels with him and pointed out the fiber and sugar in each. She hadn’t heard of G’s favorite cereal, Weetabix, which has less than 2 grams of sugar and almost 4 grams of fiber, but she recommended I buy him some Quarker Whole Hearts with more sugar and less fiber. Next she picked up a bright bottle of iced tea with a picture of a peach on it. “What about this one?” she asked G. “Do you think this is healthy? Look at the picture of the peach.”

G shook his head, “But, it’s not a peach,” he said, recognizing her trick. “It’s a bottle.” Ignoring his response she shook the bottle revealing several tablespoons of sugar. G nodded in agreement as she expressed her disgust. She asked G about eating out, and he described his favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. She asked about McDonalds, and G informed her, “Did you know you don’t have to eat the food in order to get the toy?”

She finally conceded that the weight must be from the Abilify he was taking. “I’m sorry I can’t help,” she tried. “I’m impressed. Most of my patients aren’t very educated about food–most of them don’t even speak English, so you know what I’m dealing with.” I looked down at my little Latino boy and rubbed my forehead. Then she added, “You should know though that he should probably be at least 30 lbs. lighter. I know the Abilify is helpful, but you have to think through the pros and cons.”

I already understood the pros and cons, I’d been enjoying the many peaceful moments brought to us by the magic psychotropics for several months. And 30 pounds? That was almost a third of him!

I know this shouldn’t have been news to me. When the pediatrician put her little dot in the “obese” section of the growth chart the previous summer, the one before he started Abilify, I reasoned that obviously she was comparing him to kids who were of primarily European descent. Certainly there was a growth chart in Guatemala that would put him closer to the healthy range. Now, with an additional 15 pounds on top of that, it was obvious that he was somewhat overweight, but he didn’t seem that out of the ordinary.

It was around that time that I first heard about Dara-Lynn Weiss–the mom who made headline news after her story about putting her 7-year old on a diet appeared in Vogue. I didn’t read the article but nonetheless felt justified in liking some Facebook page set up to demonize her. What more did I need to know? She put a 7-year old kid on a diet! Obviously the kid would have a growth spurt in a couple years. Why deprive her child of food just to meet some cultural standard that is so unforgiving even 7-year olds can’t have a little baby fat?

I knew better. I knew the way to handle G’s weight problem was a) not to talk about it so that he wouldn’t feel bad about himself and b) wait it out until he hit a growth spurt and the problem resolved itself.

Although the weight gain stopped after he was off the medications, he only lost a couple of pounds before leveling off. The growth spurt added less than an inch, barely budging his BMI. Under the guise of eating healthier, we tried reducing carbs, reducing treats, going paleo, going vegan. The one thing I refused to try was talking to G about his weight, making him aware of the calories in food and how calories affect his body, and helping him make low-calorie choices. That’s what my husband advocated. Total crazy talk.

Then G came home from school and asked me if he was fat. Another day some kid called him “disgusting.” Aside from his school uniform, that had to be specially altered, he’d only wear sweats–that was all he could wear. I thought back over the previous months as I’d watched him grow more sluggish. He used to beam with pride as he skipped speedily across the monkey bars. Now he dropped after the first grip. He used to race us at the end of a long bike ride. Now he complained just going around the block. It was becoming more apparent that something needed to happen, but I didn’t know how to do it without making him self-conscious and obsessive.

Some time later, while milling about alone at our local bookstore, I stumbled across The Heavy: A Mom, A Daughter, A Diet by none other than the evil Dara-Lynn Weiss who had put her baby girl on a diet. I started flipping through the pages and before I knew it I had downloaded the book and was swiping the pages quickly across my screen.

This demon mom was just like me. She fed her child all the right things, and looked down on people who didn’t. She had a daughter who, like G, loved good food and could consume it in great quantities. The heavens opened up. G was eating too much. No longer could I say, “Wow! Three avocados? What great brain food!” I ordered the plan she used with her daughter Bea (Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right) before I’d read far enough to understand her objections. After believing for years that instead of reading labels you should eat foods without them, I started flipping over boxes and looking for calorie counts. I quickly learned we were doing it all wrong. Nutrient-dense almond flour (at 180 calories per quarter cup) was a valuable diet staple, and I avoided wheat flour (at 114 calories per quarter cup) at all cost. This thinking worked well for me, but it made my child obese. It was clear now. Weiss wasn’t a devil… she was my new hero.

I casually mentioned the book to G one night, and I instantly had his full attention. He wanted to know all about what Bea thought about her diet, if she’d been teased, what she ate, if she got hungry. I shared with him as it was appropriate and as Bea shed pounds through the pages he was eager to do the same. He was motivated. I was empowered.

Then one snuggly night we were laying on his floor playing with his Playmobile sets. He directed, “You are going to be the family going on a diet because of their daughter. (So much for explaining that we all needed to eat better.) I’m going to be the family with a bunch of kids who live next door.”

“Okay,” I hesitantly went along. I walked my 2 inch child out of the house, while he ran his plastic pack of kids yelling, “Hey fatty! Catch up!” Then he explained to me, “They’re going to run and you’re going to try really hard but you’re not going to be able to catch up to them.”

My last worry was gone. I now had a glimpse into his inner life, and realized that for him his struggle with weight wasn’t that different from Tourette or loving pink. “This is a problem we can solve, G,” I told him that night. He nodded enthusiastically, and I spent the next day wandering the packaged-food aisles of K-Mart praying that no one would see me filling the cart with little packages of low-calorie non-food.

One major benefit of the diet is that you can eat as many fruit and vegetables as you want without having to count them toward your daily allowance of calories. The brightly-colored packages did a lot to help G accept the reduced calories. No, he couldn’t have a second burrito at dinner, but after school he could pick a treat from the box–anything from toxic-orange crackers to chocolatey Oreos.

In early February, we finished the first week of the diet. G didn’t complain, not once, and he lost 3 lbs. I filled a bag with 3lbs. of beans and let him hold it. His eyes grew wide, and he told me how proud he felt. My husband, the voice of experience, told G he was proud of him but he wanted him to know that the first pounds drop off more quickly. He probably wouldn’t lose 3 pounds every week and not to get discouraged but keep at it knowing he’s doing the right thing.

And he is. O and I are having trouble controlling ourselves with our new access to junk food, but G is sticking to the food plan. Sticking it out at gymnastics and skating is more difficult, but hopefully he’ll feel better about those things when he’s lighter. Yes, G enjoys video games, and he plays them more than he used to. I know a lot of skinny kids though, and every single one of them loves video games. I’m not worried about that–at least not more than any other mom.

The one place I still differ from Weiss is on goal weight. She wanted her daughter in the “healthy” range, but I don’t think that is a realistic goal for G. I figured out not-an-ounce-of-fat-on-him O’s BMI the other day, and he’s technically obese, too. I, on the other hand, having likely the highest percentage of body fat, is the only one in out family who falls in the “healthy” zone. My boys are strong. They have broad shoulders, thick bones, and big muscles. Some day I may find a growth chart from Guatemala that reflects their build, or maybe we’ll come up with a less arcane method of determining healthy weight. So, I don’t know what the goal is, but I’m confident that we’ll know it when we get there because G will be showing off again–on his skates, or his bike, or in a gymnasium, or skipping across the monkey bars. I only wish helping him get there could be as easy as turning off a video game.

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