“I want another chicken nugget!” shouts John Presley, with all the indignation a 5-year-old can muster. His mom, Theresa, 41, firmly says no, and instead hands her son a small Weight Watchers toffee crunch ice cream treat. He licks it contentedly, oblivious to the fact that for the last year he has been on a diet. “I tell him it’s food that will make him strong,” says his mom.
Not so long ago, a plump baby was a sign that parents were doing something right. In the U.S.—where, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 14 percent of kids 5 and younger are obese—that’s no longer true. Some doctors are beginning to put children on diets if their body mass index—a ratio of height and weight—hits the 95th percentile or above, even if they’re as young as 2. Dr. David Ludwig, founder of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Clinic in Boston, one of a handful of programs catering to obese children, says so many kids are overweight that parents often fail to recognize warning signs for health problems such as diabetes in their kids. “Being heavy has become normalized,” he says.
Experts urge caution before rushing small children into a diet. “These children are growing and need to be nourished to grow,” says Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. And discussing weight at such a young age could cause children to grow up with an unhealthy fixation on body image. “You don’t want to make kids unhappy with their bodies,” says Kelly Brownell, head of Ya...