Parents stand between kids and junk food

This is Part 3 of a series that examines the epidemic of childhood obesity in the state of Washington.

Part 1: State still seeks winning strategy against childhood obesity

Part 2: Kids battle the lure of junk food

When Nanette Magno looks at her youngest son, she sees a sweet 8-year-old who plays soccer and baseball and likes to help out in the kitchen.

Other people, she realized a few years ago, see something different. There was that day in church, for instance, when they ran into one of his classmates.

"That fat boy is in my school!" the kid yelled out, excited to see a familiar face.

Magno doesn't generally talk about this with other moms. It's too painful. But one day, looking for help, she will begin to share. First she'll show you his soccer team photo.

"He does stand out," she says. And indeed, he does.

She will go on to tell you that three of her four kids are significantly overweight and that she's overweight herself. She will confide that as much as she keeps it inside, the problem consumes her. She is confused. Frustrated. And ashamed.

"I feel sometimes we're being judged," she says quietly.

She's right, of course.

But also know this: Magno, a Seattle telecom analyst, is smart and hardworking, a devoted mom who reads nutrition labels, enrolls her kids in sports and cooks up homemade meals. She's trained her brood to actually like their vegetables. Yet ... there was that boy in church.

"You look at your kids and think, are they truly not normal?" she says. Then she wonders.

"Did I cause that?"

OK, stop right there. I know you're blaming Magno. You're probably blaming every other parent with overweight kids, too. But this is much more complicated than it might seem.

We're not going to make the usual pronouncements that families are stressed for time, that healthy food is expensive, that school lunch is the problem. We've all heard it before.

Instead, Magno and other parents are going to talk about the battle going on inside their heads. There's the relentless voice that tells them their kids are overweight, and the one that wants to protect them from the truth; the voice that makes them feel guilty when they let their kids have a treat and guilty when they say no; the one berating them to do more, and the one nagging at them — as they see a world of hurt in their children's eyes — that nothing they could say seems right.

Maybe you're already familiar with that voice. Because if the statistics are right — that 30 percent of kids are overweight or obese — a whole lot of you will read about these families and think, sadly, "That is us."

Just so we're clear, Woodinville mom Susan Stoltzfus would like to make a point. She and her son have weight problems, but that doesn't mean they're not trying to do something about it.

And another thing: The human body is a mysterious creation.

On the day her twins, Nathan and Noah, were born 14 years ago, there were 6 ounces difference between them. Quickly, they began to diverge.

"They are completely different in their weight and in their relationship with food," Stoltzfus says. Nathan struggles with his weight. Noah's a beanpole.

Clearly, there's something more than parenting going on here.

Stoltzfus recalls when the twins were nursing, Nathan always seemed so much hungrier than Noah. He cried more, so she'd feed him first. Any mother would. As the boys got older, Nathan's appetite continued.

Initially, it didn't seem like a problem. It's not as if they woke up one day and Nathan was suddenly huge. The weight just crept up.

Until the truth became inescapable. By the time they were 13, Nathan had 80 pounds on his twin.

But what was the solution? "Should I have sent him to Weight Watchers at 8?" Stoltzfus wonders. It seems ridiculous. Limiting one twin while indulging the other also seems fraught with problems.

By this point, too, habits had set in.

Now she and her husband were faced with a real challenge, one that's familiar to every parent out there. They had to figure out how to take things away — things that Nathan, like most kids, had gotten quite accustomed to.

This is the crux of the problem.

Stoltzfus knows moms sometimes have to lay down the law. But sorting out weight issues? It's just so emotionally fraught. Every day she goes through the same balancing act in her head. She doesn't want to overemphasize food; parenting books advise against that. She doesn't want to dictate every food choice; she wants her teens to learn to make their own decisions. Most of all, she doesn't want to hurt Nathan.

"If I push him to do well with music it helps him develop his self-esteem," she notes. "If I push him to lose weight it has the opposite effect."

Nathan is doing better at eating reasonably, ever since he lost 37 pounds on Weight Watchers last year, but it's a daily struggle.

When he overindulges, Stoltzfus debates: Should I say something now? She factors in his mood, considers how he might best learn healthy habits for the long term. And she wonders: Will her words lead him to eat more?

Mostly, she tiptoes.

"There was always that feeling I was the fat guy," Nathan admits. "I never really told myself that, though. I would always cover it up."

He pauses. "It's actually kind of hard to accept."

Which brings up another point: Do you even want your kid to accept this?

Nanette Magno doesn't want to hurt her kids, either. In the process, she's beating up on herself.

She traces the problem back to the Bagel Bites. They're pizza-like snacks you cook in the toaster oven, and her four kids loved them from the first taste. They wanted more and more.

Next it was chicken nuggets and frozen taquitos. And guilt.

"I got lazy," she says.

Hardly. She used to regularly get up at 3:30 in the morning to make soup, which she'd pour into thermoses for school. She'd work during the day, race around to her kids' activities, then be back in the kitchen for dinner, cooking up everything from salmon and asparagus to Filipino family recipes. Like her own mother, Magno would leave the pot on the stove, in case anyone wanted more.

Often, the kids would go back for seconds. Maybe even thirds. In some ways, it was flattering. At some point, though, she began trying to limit them.

That's when they'd pull the trump card. I'm still hungry. A kid says he's hungry, you can't just say no, can you? She tries, of course, then feels like a control freak. More guilt. "I'm so tired of being the watchdog all the time," she says.

The dilemmas never end. Her kid wants to have a pizza party after a team victory. Does she suggest a salad party instead? Going to church, to restaurants, even walking in the mall as a family, she feels the judgment.

"I think people are like, 'Look at that unhealthy family,' " she says.

At parties, she's convinced people are tracking how much her kids eat. It's probably true.

She has made changes. The family goes out less, and the kids get fruit with their lunch. She's talked to her mother about cutting back on her elaborate after-school snacks.

But it's not like there are visible results. Guilt times three.

"I'm kind of lost," she says.

What she and Stoltzfus are hearing from the experts — eat more vegetables, buy lower-fat products, substitute fruit for cookies — misses the point completely. What they need are strategies for subtraction.

That's where our next family comes in. They've made radical changes in their lifestyle.

Boy is it hard.

Leslie Whitaker remembers the moment it hit her. She was with her grandchildren, Nikita and Darius Steele, at the Great Wolf Lodge last November. As she looked around, she saw only one other kid shaped like them.

A doctor later confirmed what Whitaker saw. At age 11 and 12, these Bellevue tweens were about 30 pounds overweight — a third more than the charts said they should weigh. Nikita, a sixth-grader, had high cholesterol.

Whitaker, her daughter, Lara Steele, and Lara's husband, Shawn, had talked about making changes, but they were never able to stick to anything. Lara, who stays at home, would battle the kids all day trying to keep them from junkie snacks; Shawn would come home from work at Microsoft and say, "Let's go to Taco Bell!"

The night of the doctor's visit, the three adults holed up in the bedroom for a heart-to-heart. They talked about Whitaker's fondness for treating them to big pancake breakfasts; Lara's sweets; Shawn's fast food. All three had to make changes.

"We built a consensus that didn't point fingers," Whitaker says.

Consensus doesn't burn calories, of course. The situation called for drastic action: They'd go cold turkey. No meals out, period.

And they would no longer fix the kids a separate dinner, which usually wound up being frozen nuggets or mac and cheese in the playroom. Every night, they'd all sit at the table.

And the big one: If it was unhealthy, it wasn't allowed in the house.

The next morning, when the kids went to school, Lara and Leslie went through the kitchen. Out went the Oreos and the Cheez Whiz and the chips. Out went the Sprites and the sugar-filled fruit drinks. Out went the white rice and high-sodium cans of soup.

It took three hours. The castoffs filled the entire back of Lara's SUV.

"It was sad to realize how much junk I had in the house just to save time cooking," Steele says.

Then they went to Whole Foods. They deliberated over every purchase, read every label. The bill: $200.

They felt good.

When the kids heard the plan, they flipped.

"I threw an immature little-girl temper tantrum," Nikita says. "Also cried."

Darius opened the fridge. "It's all green!"

A few weeks into their new regimen, the Steele kids are still adjusting.

Walking to their school-carpool pickup site instead of driving isn't their idea of fun. But when Whitaker sets out one afternoon with Darius, he doesn't grumble too much.

Fifteen minutes later, he peers in the window of a convenience store as they wait for Nikita. "Can I have a doughnut?"

And later, "Can I have some gum?"

He fidgets. "I need food now," he says.

"You may eat any fruit that you find at home," Whitaker tells him calmly. She has brought "no" back into their vocabulary.

As soon as Nikita gets out of the car, Darius spots it: "Nikita's got gum!" he says.

Back home, Whitaker gives the kids a snack of carrots, celery and peanut butter. Then she sets about making spaghetti sauce and whole-wheat pasta.

If she were making it for herself, she'd throw in a lot of vegetables. But for the kids?

"They're not going to want a sauce that complex," she says. "So I'll serve the broccoli and asparagus separately." Same goes for the salad — everything's separate.

Of course, she doesn't really expect the kids to eat any of it.

"But it's exposure," she says.

Darius can be convinced to try new things. Nikita has more trouble.

"Nikita, would you try a little salad please?" Lara asks. Nikita shakes her head no.

"I'm just going to put a little bit of it on your plate," Lara continues.

Again with the head. "Please try a bit of lettuce."

The head shaking becomes fiercer.

Finally, she takes a nibble. And winces.

Darius changes the subject. "Mom, what's for dessert?"

"Nothing is for dessert," Lara says.

Darius closes his eyes and tries a cucumber slice. He shudders, then goes for a bowl of Cheerios.

"You can eat your cereal, but please eat a couple pieces of cooked broccoli," Lara says. "I know you like it."

"I hate cooked broccoli," he answers. "How about cooked marshmallows?

Nikita gets a second bowl of pasta, minus the sauce. Then she gets some Cheerios.

"You need to slow down a little bit to give your body a chance to catch up," Lara says.

Shawn interjects. "We normally don't talk about the food this much."

The kids may be playing things up. Still, you wonder: Is changing your kids' diet harder on the parents than it is on the kids?

On a spring Tuesday, Lara is making the rounds at Whole Foods.

Into the cart go apples and carrots and broccoli. Yes, broccoli. Nikita's even eating some now.

"It's starting to get more natural and normal for us," Lara says.

She picks up a small box of cereal for Nikita. The bulk packs might seem more economical, Lara explains, but it will inevitably lead to one of two things: Nikita will eat more or Lara will have to say no more.

She reads labels.

She gets ground buffalo to make burgers, and says she serves them on smaller buns, with a half slice of cheddar, seven French fries, a salad and some peas.

"The average American would look at that and say, that's no food at all," Lara says. "Four months ago, I would have said the same thing."

Everyone was down 12 to 14 pounds.

What about all the time it takes to cook versus going out? Lara thinks she comes out even: "It doesn't take any longer to stand in the kitchen for an hour than it does to wait for a table for 20 minutes, order your food and wait for it to come."

The biggest surprise was financial. Her weekly Whole Foods bill is usually in the $150-to-$200 range. The Steeles realized they spent about the same amount when they were eating junk.

Sure, there have been some slip-ups. Lara says she sometimes just doesn't have the energy to cook. The family went on vacation and indulged. They even went to McDonald's once.

"The kids said it didn't taste as good," she says. "The last time we drove by, they said, 'McDonald's. Gross!' "

Maureen O'Hagan is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.