Childhood obesity has many adverse effects on the overall health, both medical, mental, social, or emotional. Yet pressuring a child to lose weight could be just as damaging.
The incidence of obesity among children and teens has been on the rise in the past decades. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 18.5% of children between the ages of 6 to 19 are obese. The situation is so dire that more and more children are being diagnosed with previously grown-up, obesity-related conditions such as high cholesterol and Type II diabetes. Poor quality foods also contribute to the current situation. Children’s endocrine system is destroyed by hormones and medications present in meat or animal by-products, genetically modified cereals, chemically treated fruits and vegetables. More and more little girls experience early pubertal onset. Excessive estrogen hinders the normal reproductive maturation of more little boys. Endocrine-related obesity is also on the rise.
Children who are overweight are often victims of anti-fat stigma. Starting as young as four years old, children have a negative view about being overweight. They are more likely to attribute negative characteristics, such as being lazy, stupid, ugly, unfriendly, to overweight peers. The same is true even if the respondent child is overweight himself. Overweight children have lower self-esteem, are social outcasts, and are often victims of bullying.
Notice how the accent is on health, both physical and mental. If you want your child to lose weight because he/she has a different body shape or looks different from other children his/her age, please stop. It is not about your child anymore. Your attitudes stem from anti-fat stigma and internalized beauty standards. I am not trying to blame you. It is a fairly common situation. Society has fed the message that our value is in the number on the scale or how flat our tummy is for generations. Yet, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge, and noticing these negative beliefs is the first step in changing.
Please remember that even if the reasons to want your child to lose weight are valid, you will still walk a fine line. Critique may come from love and pure concern, but it is still hurtful. Being happy with your body is an essential part of body satisfaction. Body satisfaction is a part of self-image, namely how people see themselves and their perceived value in this world. Self-image is closely tied with self-worth and self-esteem. Do you see how all these parts are linked?
How can you promote a healthy weight without undermining your child’s self-image and body satisfaction?
- Do not single your child out, this is a family journey. You are your child’s main food provider. As a family, you already have eating habits, favorite recipes, and snacking habits. You need to take a hard look at these things first. How did your child end up in this situation? If the grandparents are the feeders in the family, you need to discuss with them too. Identify the unhealthy patterns and start changing them. If that means you stop serving dessert with dinner, the entire family needs to be on board with that. If you establish rules for second servings, they apply to everyone.
- The accent must be on health, not on weight. Be aware of the implicit messages you are sending. An incident sparked the idea for this article I witnessed in a supermarket. I was standing in line in the freshly backed section. In front of me was a mother with her daughter. The girl asked for some pastry, but the mother was listing why she could not have it. If you listened, the base message was you cannot have this pastry because you are already overweight. All these efforts must be in service of better health, improving their relationship with food, and noticing eating patterns. The base message should be you are getting healthy, not you are getting thinner.
- Inform yourself about the nutritional needs for your child’s age. You can ask your pediatrician for advice and guidance. There is also a lot of information online on the subject. Change the recipes you are cooking and incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Do not fall in the other extreme, though. A tiny cream cheese sandwich and some fruits and veggies are not a suitable lunch for an active, energetic child. Every meal must be balanced. Otherwise, your child will be starving at dinner, overeat, and then feel guilty about overeating. This could be a hazardous eating tape loop.
- Buy the best quality food you can afford. The hard truth is that cheap food is unhealthy. Not everybody can afford to eat clean, healthy food. But there are some ways around it: buy less but higher quality meat and supplement the protein intake with other high-protein foods; buy fruits and veggies from farmer’s markets; if you have a backyard, try growing some veggies or get some chickens for eggs; try to chip in from other categories and add to the food budget. Cheap food is poisoning your body from inside. Eating clean food is truly a long-term investment in your health.
- Educate your child about food. There are no good foods and bad foods. Being decisive like that is not very helpful. Teach your child about all the ways certain foods nourish their body. When I worked as a kindergarten assistant teacher, I had in my class a boy whose mother put effort into clean eating. He would often repeat to me what his mother was telling him: “Do you know walnuts are yummy and are good for your brain?”. I find this a healthy, useful approach to food. Also, talk to them about the ways some foods are not that great for their body. It is not a good idea to eat those kinds of foods often. Don’t put any foods off-limits unless for medical reasons. This practice will only encourage sneaky eating. Try not to keep unhealthy foods, snacks, or drinks in the house. This way, you will tacitly establish the habit of eating clean at home, and also, there will be less temptation.
- Please encourage your child to listen to his/her body. Is he/she hungry, or is just bored and in need of something to do? Encourage him/her to eat slowly. His/her body needs time to realize its full. Also, eat together at the dinner table. Eating while TV or YouTube watching encourages overeating since the focus is no longer on enjoying the food and listening to the body’s signals.
- Get it moving. Make time in your family’s daily routine for physical activity: go for walks after dinner, do hikes on weekends, take up a sport. Please encourage your child to do sports individually, but don’t make it a chore. Allow them to try different things and see what they enjoy.
Encouraging a healthy relationship with food and developing healthy eating habits is truly the best type of self-care you will impart to your child. Keep in mind the true goal of this journey and arm yourself with patience. Being healthy is the ultimate luxury because when your health is not where it should be, nothing else in life matters.