09 Sep Tackling the “Weight” Discussion with Children from a Registered Dietitian’s POV
Our children are inundated, daily, with images, videos, and clips of photoshopped “perfect bodies.” The messages they receive about what bodies are the “right” bodies are loud and clear. But then we walk into a supermarket, and behold the bright colored sugary treats, right at eye level, all within reach. Add commercials touting every packaged product imaginable and school districts that cut physical education programs and offer pizza and juice boxes for lunch – our children are receiving pretty muddled messages.
“More than 23 million children and teenagers in the United States ages 2 to 19 are obese or overweight, a statistic that health and medical experts consider an epidemic.” (www.heathierkidsbrighterfutures.org) September was declared Childhood Obesity Awareness Month in 2012. Every year, there are campaigns nationwide to address this epidemic. Childhood obesity is preventable.
I see clients of all ages – many of whom are overweight, many of whom suffer from eating disorders. Discussing weight and body image can be overwhelming and scary.
These are my top eight tips to tackling the uncomfortable subject of weight and obesity with our children:
Be role models. Don’t talk the talk, walk the walk (hopefully 10,000 steps a day!). Make eating right and exercise a family thing. Sitting together at the table to eat, taking a walk after dinner instead of turning on the TV, preparing fruit salad for dessert with a dab of yogurt … all of these little things send big messages. Kids don’t need to go to Pilates. They just need to move.
Shift the conversation from weight to health. When we talk about weight, we’re playing into what we, and our children, see in the media. When we talk about health, we’re shifting the paradigm and discussing the underlying, substantial reason for which we want our children to be at a healthy weight.
That ship did not sail. It’s never too late to change bad habits to good. In fact, it’s easier than you may think. Clean out the pantry together, as a family, looking at food labels and learning together about which foods are unhealthy. Then grocery shop together, finding fruits and snacks our kids will like. When kids see we’re invested as a family in health, it makes changing easier.
Don’t prohibit foods. If your child loves ice cream, then share a scoop with her. At birthday parties, have cake. I have a friend whose son, whenever he’s around candy at a party or excursion, goes berserk, overeats, gets sick but still eats more. Restricting foods tends to backfire. They become enticing – the holy grail – for our kids. This goes back to shifting the conversation from weight to health. It’s great to enjoy a double-fudge brownie at a party. It’s just not something we do every day.
Don’t criticize or compare. This is crucial. Seemingly innocuous comments are like atomic bombs for our kids’ self esteems. When we start saying things like, “Manuela sure is heftier than her sisters,” our kids are receiving the message that their bodies are ugly.
Pay attention to your habits and children’s habits. The relationship we have with food is incredibly personal and can be a symptom of another problem. How does your child talk about food? When does she eat too much or too little? Ask yourself the same questions.
Family unplugged. TV/video game time and childhood obesity are directly related. Our body’s metabolism slows when we’re watching TV (hence, the couch potato syndrome). Add distracted eating to that, and we’ve got ourselves a deadly put-on-the-pounds combination.
I love you. Make sure your child knows that your love isn’t tied to his weight. You love him because of who he is, the kind of person he is, and you want to make sure he is strong and healthy and lives a happy life. Teach him that part of loving himself is taking care of himself – eating well, exercising, and having a healthy body.
We can’t gloss over what is a health epidemic in the United States, and our children need to know that being healthy isn’t because we want to emulate pop culture, it’s because we want to feel good and live well. It’s never too late to begin a healthy lifestyle. Why not start today?