Dilemmas: My nephew is obese and his parents feed him on burgers

Eva's worried about her delightful, overweight nephew. His mother never eats vegetables, his father doesn't believe in fruit, they live on a diet of fat and starchy foods and go to McDonald's every Saturday - but she doesn't want to say anything because she gets on well with the family

I have a friend who is very health-conscious. She forbids her children sweets, or chocolate biscuits, she insists they take sticks of celery in their lunch-box to school instead of crisps, and feeds them baked potatoes, salads, beansprouts, pasta and chicken. No red meat. When the children come round they gorge themselves on all the chocolate biscuits, sweets, crisps and burgers that I keep for them.

I have another friend who panders to her daughters' foodie whims, to such an extent that everyone in the family has different meals at different times. One is a vegetarian and has to be cooked a special meal every evening; one is allergic to wheat; the mother's husband is on a cholesterol-free diet, and she never eats tomatoes, peppers, any drink with additives ... the list is endless. When they come round they have to bring their own rice- biscuits, organic bread, non-dairy spread - indeed they are impossible to have to lunch as a family. And another little boy I know used to come round to my house for supper and insist on his fish fingers being peeled - and then he left the fish and only ate the crumbs on the outside.

These families are indeed well on the way to getting health and dietary problems in the future. They are also going to develop social problems, finding it hard to go out to restaurants, or to friends. They have made such a to-do about food that their lives are ruled by their diet. The children are heading for all kinds of eating disorders.

Compared with these families, Eva's nephew, and his family, seems to be behaving in the most normal way, just eating what they like. Never did my son crave sweets - because they were freely available to him. Henry VIII never ate vegetables and though he was a bit of a fatty it didn't seem to affect his general health or his exuberance about life. And anyway, every day we read contradictory evidence about what foods are good for us and what aren't. Margarine is good for you; margarine gives you cancer; drink is bad for you but a couple of glasses of red wine keeps heart disease away. Recently it was reported that the chemical additives sprayed on some tomatoes can help keep men's prostate problems at bay, or something. Salads are good but some pre-washed supermarket salads contain salmonella.

Of course Eva could ask her nephew round and introduce him to the charms of organic oranges, free-range courgettes, wild salmon and corn-fed basil, but I suspect he would just say "Ugh!" as any normal child does to food it's never seen before. But frankly, what the hell business is it of hers whether her nephew is overweight or not? They sound like a very jolly family if they all go out for a meal together on a Saturday night. And as for that ghastly snobbishness about McDonald's - a double-decker and a glass of milk is a pretty healthy meal.

I often pop in there for a delicious cheeseburger and orange juice when I'm on the run despite the faces made by friends who wrongly imagine I'm helping myself to a diet of BSE and cancer germs in a bun. Just because the McDonald's clientele is made up of people on lower incomes because the food is so cheap doesn't mean the food's not good or tasty.

Eva should keep her trap shut and thank God that her nephew is "delightful". And perhaps she should ask herself over one Saturday night on their McDonald's outing and find out exactly what she's been missing.

what readers say

Try dropping a few hints

It's always difficult voicing criticism of friends and relatives. The desire not to offend can be so great that you keep your mouth shut inappropriately, and later, kick yourself for your cowardice. The bottom line is to consider which would be worse - risking a moment's pique by mentioning your nephew's diet, or silently watching him turn into an obese child and portly adult, with all the attendant risk, from social isolation to eating disorders.

Criticisms are better taken when veiled as innocent remarks, and stripped of any blame. Instead of slating your sister's cooking, try introducing the child to new and exotic fruits with the chance remark that you read somewhere we should be eating five pieces of fruit or vegetable a day. You could tell your sister you're on a health kick as you've just read up on the health risks of obesity. If all else fails, you could be direct but calm and tactful.

Dr Leyla Sanai

Glasgow

So what's the problem?

Eva takes the biscuit. She is worried about her nephew eating the wrong foods and being plump; she claims that the child's parents have a peculiar attitude towards diet. If that is really breaking her heart as she says, then I have nothing but sympathy for her. Her nephew, apart from being plump, seems to be in good hands and I recommend that Eva keeps her mouth buttoned up.

Martin Russell

Newcastle upon Tyne

Introduce healthy habits

Tell them casually about your efforts to improve your fitness and eating habits. You could ask your sister/brother-in-law for some moral support by going on the same diet or attending the gym with you. You could take your nephew on cycle rides; take up tennis with him, find out about sporting activities he could become involved in. Ask them round to yours for supper occasionally, or better still, do a cookery course together and then take it in turns periodically to prepare family suppers. By setting an example when they are in your company, the message may filter through without causing offence. Gently let slip a few white lies: about your friend's son whose doctor warned he'd be wearing dentures by the time he was 20 if he continued to drink cola... Drastic maybe, but in the light of the growing evidence of the link between diet and disease, almost any measure should be taken if it looks like it could have some effect. Failing all that, be blunt.

Kim,

Cambridge

Diet is dangerous territory

As I understand it, children's dietary needs are different from adults'. Apparently some children are becoming malnourished because their parents feed them an adult-style, low-fat diet in the mistaken belief that it is good for them. Also, younger and younger children are developing anorexic tendencies, believing themselves to be fat, when in fact they are just about to put on a growth spurt when all "excess" fat will be evenly redistributed.

Given these issues I would be extremely hesitant to start trying to interfere in a child's diet unless I were properly qualified to comment. I would particularly urge Eva not to comment in the children's hearing.

I also think any interference would be almost certain to cause conflict with the parents - if they are as well educated as Eva seems to think, they can hardly be unaware of the issues surrounding diet. This may all be "parental policy", either to allow the children to develop their own preferences, or even to preserve a quiet life.

Alison Keys,

Brigg, Humberside

next week's dilemma

I suffer from the most terrible nightmares. I dread going to sleep because I know I will dream about tortured animals, child abuse, the most horrible things you can think of. I often wake up terrified, and the dreams often linger with me all day, far more intense than the reality of life. Is there any way I can stop them? I don't think I'm depressed; I'm normally cheerful; but why do I have these sinister dreams? And what can I do about them?

Sofia

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182), by Tuesday morning. And if you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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