"I was paranoid about him being made to feel that he was anything less than perfect" … Chrissie Swan. Photo: Julian Kingma
My three-year-old is seven kilos overweight. This might not sound like much, but for a preschooler, this is a big deal. I'd noticed he'd started getting larger in the past 12 months. Looking at photos of him taken this time last year showed a huge difference in appearance.
Sure, he'd grown taller. He'd had his first proper haircut, where his cherubic blond curls had been snipped away to reveal a very serious and surprisingly dark businessman's hairdo. But his baby softness had gone, too. In its place was a little boy who was just too heavy. I denied and denied. Then I started to panic. Then I went straight to Google.
I knew she would ask me what a typical day of food entailed for him and I thought she would think I was lying
Immediately, juice was banned. No juice. Not even diluted. He reacted to this new rule not unlike a possessed child being splashed with holy water. He writhed. He screamed. I think I actually saw his head rotate 360 degrees. But the no-juice rule stayed.
But the chub was still there.
I was put on my first diet at the age of 11. This involved turning up to group meetings with grown women in a church hall, slipping off my shoes and being publicly weighed. I was counting kilojoules and whipping skim milk into fluff, as a snack, before I had left primary school. I didn't want anything like this for my son. But in my desire to avoid the demonisation of food and the low self-esteem it inevitably creates, I had unwittingly set my beautiful son on a rocky path.
It wasn't until I took him to his first day of crèche that I saw how different he was. The other kids seemed so small compared to my little sweetheart, whose shoes and pants were at least two sizes bigger. Mild panic set in. What happens if someone is mean to him? What happens when, after three years of being told he is magnificent, someone tells him otherwise, based on his weight? I could barely breathe.
Last month, he had his check-up with the maternal health nurse, and that was when the news of his extra seven kilos was broken. The nurse was wonderful about it, and I'm certain it's not an easy conversation to have. Mercifully, my concern was palpable. She knew I was out of my depth and gently suggested I go to see a paediatric dietitian.
This sent me into a spiral. For as long as I can remember, eating disorders and an obsession with weight have been a girls-only domain. Girls I knew in the '80s were eating only a packet of chicken-noodle soup and a green apple for the entire day. And they were 13. I was one of them. Sadly, statistics show that boys are not immune to this madness.
I imagined turning up to a clinical office, my baby being stripped and weighed. I imagined this as the day his self-loathing would be born. I called the dietitian and asked if it was necessary for her to sight my son, as I was paranoid about him being made to feel that he was anything less than perfect. She assured me it was necessary to see him, but it would be okay.
I knew she would ask me what a typical day of food entailed for him and I thought she would think I was lying. But this is a child who doesn't know chicken nuggets. He's never had a fish finger. He hates cream. Sure, he loses his mind and acts like a kelpie off a leash at a party with cake, but don't all kids?
I told her what he eats. Fruit. Lots of fruit. Cheese. Toast. Chicken breast. No meat. He will eat around the meat in a spaghetti bolognaise, which is quite a skill. She listened intently for 20 minutes while I expressed my bafflement. Then she helped me.
My three-year-old eats too much good stuff. Turns out that four bananas a day, if you're only one metre tall, will make you fat. And if you throw in three mandarins, a punnet of strawberries and four Cheestiks, you're in a pair of size-6 elasticised jeans before you can say, "Is it crèche today?"
My shame for getting him into this mess has turned to relief. He's now eating all the things he knows and loves, just far less of them ... and not every day!
But we are the lucky ones. We can afford to see a professional who will probably change our lives. We are also a family who know about good food, grow vegetables and always have a bowl of fruit on the table (or up high in the pantry now, to stop the daily disappearance of five kiwi fruit).
What happens to the kids whose families have no idea about nutrition, and no money to talk to someone about it? I am an educated woman with a wealth of knowledge about food, and even I stuffed up badly. It's all very well to bleat on about the obesity epidemic, but until we make education about basic nutrition accessible for everyone, it will just get worse.
Chrissie Swan is the co-host of Mix 101.1's breakfast show in Melbourne and 3pm Pick-Up nationally; Twitter: @chrissieswan.
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This article originally appeared in Sunday Life.