History Repeating Itself – Bernadette Keenan
Why does history repeat itself within families? It may be for various reasons, amongst those, we have learned experiences, socio-economic reasons and possibly the most important, genetics. Genetics dictate which parent we resemble more closely for height, eye and hair colour, talents and so much more. This includes genes which are responsible for health issues. For up to 70% of people, overweight or obesity can be hereditary.
How does it feel to understand you’ve passed this part of your DNA on to your child or children? Awful. A great deal of parenting is wonderful and then there is the guilt. On a personal level I have lived with Overweight & Obesity from the age of 3. For many years, I blamed myself. As I grew and gained weight, many Health Care Professionals blamed me too. I also felt anxious for my lovely mum who received numerous lectures over the years on my behalf.
When I was young food was freshly bought and prepared daily. Ultra-processed foods did not make it to the country town I grew up in. We had one supermarket which sold mainly clothing and household items, the food area was minute as people bought as needed on a daily basis. This signified snack foods outside pieces of fruit were not usually in the cupboard. Sugary foods and drinks were few and far between, any form of cola, lollypops, ice pops were particularly forbidden as I grew up in a house with a dental surgery attached. Exercise was plentiful, I walked, cycled, swam, played tennis and joined the athletics club with my brother.
My brother was born the year before me. Even though he had quite an appetite and would usually ask for seconds, had extremely varied tastes, he lived in a body which was deemed underweight. There were so many foods I abhorred both by taste and texture. My mum, once again on the receiving end of lectures from professionals due to my brother’s lack of weight, explained our opposite eating habits and enquired whether either or both could possibly have a genetic cause. She was told in no uncertain terms that her theory was impossible. It was suggested that she was either intentionally or unintentionally misleading people regarding our eating habits and energy expenditure.
Quite early in childhood I realised my body shape was not acceptable to those around me. Society and the wider family certainly did not approve of how I looked. Political correctness and People First Language were decades away. Bullying was constant, both physical and emotional, the latter of which, still resides with me to this day. At mealtimes I was instructed to chew my food for longer, eat more slowly, put my fork down between eating etc all of which led me to fear eating in front of others. I spent my life avoiding just that for the very reason of being judged on how, what or when I ate. During my childhood and grown-up years, I tried everything, every diet, every slimming club, even starving myself, after all, this was my fault and the food I ate caused it so if I stopped eating things would change for the better, right? Wrong! Each time I would stop losing as my body reacted and in turn I would regain and more with it.
On St. Valentine’s Day, 2008 the most wonderous event in my life happened, I became a mum. My little girl arrived in this world as perfect as she could be in my eyes. I wanted to make the right choices for her from the start. During the pregnancy I had lost 5.5 stone due to hyperemesis gravidarum, in other words I was sick the whole way through. Not just morning sickness for the first few months. I also developed Pre-eclampsia. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, my milk never developed. Eventually at home, my district nurse advised me to buy formula as my baby had lost more than the usual weight a baby loses postpartum, she had also had a low birthweight for her length. I had read enough to realise that both these events may lead to a child being above a healthy weight as they grow. The guilt had started.
As she fed, she would always take one ounce less per bottle and one feed less per day that was ‘recommended’. Even though her intake was below recommendations she flourished thereby putting my worries at rest. I think we all forget recommendations are just that and each baby an individual with varying needs.
As she grew, her weight increased faster than her height (even though she has always been in at least the 95th percentile height wise). I made all her meals from scratch using healthy, non-processed, fresh ingredients on appropriate portion sized plates and bowls. Whilst young, she attended Irish dancing, karate, tennis, soccer, athletics, cycled, swam and could walk 10k with me whilst her friends who were deemed a healthy weight could not walk half the distance. There were negative comments from a particular Healthcare Professional who would have chastised me most of my life for the same reason yet never recommended appropriate treatment. This dismayed me as I certainly did not want her facing a life of stigma, bias, discrimination and a feeling of unacceptability.
I asked for a referral as soon as I could. It took quite some time to see anyone as community dieticians are overwhelmed and the only multidisciplinary team in the country for children, though wonderful, are a part-time service for the whole country and based in Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Dublin.
I certainly realised how frustrated my mum must have felt as she knew she was feeding us correctly yet could not understand how both our bodies reacted so differently to intake and output. I also received disparaging looks from people who would have remembered me at my highest weight as if to say ‘how could you allow this to happen to your child, having been there yourself’.
These people do not realise how badly I feel as her negative self-image becomes more pronounced every year. She has now given up all outside pursuits as she feels so self-conscious of her body shape though I reassure her every day how amazing she is. As autonomy grows, I find I have less say in food choices, which is natural as a child becomes an adolescent. She has now begun to hide foods, as she has also become conscious of people judging what she eats. Ironically, much of this food isn’t eaten, just hidden so she knows it is there. She is very conscious of the fact her dad may eat what he chooses (not always the healthiest choices), above the recommended energy range for a grown man and yet is deemed to be underweight. There is the crux. Given how much our child resembles her dad’s family looks wise, why did she not inherit his metabolic system or hormonal signalling genes? Has history repeated itself? Yes. By choice or in supplying obesogenic foods? Certainly not. What actions can you take to help your child? Keep the family as a unit as healthy as possibly, reach out for professional help as needed. On a positive note, more services are planned in the not-too-distant future to help children with weight issues. A child may live with weight but may still eat healthily, have reduced screen time particularly during the evening, have a sleep routine to try and ensure as much sleep as is required by age, plan movement as a family and make it fun. Finally, remind your young person every day how important they are, highlight their talents and make sure they know just how much they are loved.