Overweight and obesity have become the number 1 health concern related to children and teenagers. It now surpasses even drug use and smoking. Why should these conditions be such a concern? The reason is because they are not just associated with, but actually cause, a range of serious and detrimental health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. High blood pressure and cholesterol are related to heart disease, which can cause premature death. Type 2 diabetes is associated with many debilitating long-term complications like eye disorders leading to loss of vision, kidney disease, nerve damage, and plaque buildup in the blood vessels.
Children and teenagers who are overweight or obese often also suffer from low self-esteem, negative body issues, and depression. And, speaking from personal experience, the way we approach weight issues with children can either amplify or mediate these effects.
Warning: This is about to get personal. Want to skip to tips on handling weight issues with your children? Scroll down to the next section.
There was a period of time as a child when I was slightly overweight. I remember one of my parents’ friends asking where I got my stomach from while gesturing with his arms as if reaching around a tree. I was probably about 8 years old, and this was the first time I really saw my weight as a problem, as something that made me different. Looking back I can see that the family friend was really just a jerk, massively overweight himself, and had other issues going on in his personal life. In reality, I was a little chubby, but not unhealthy. Even still, this cringe-worthy experience has stayed with me my whole life.
Later on, when I would express my concerns, I would be told that I was just “curvy.” Others’ self-deprecating attempts to commiserate with me and make me feel better about myself only made me feel worse. If someone 4 sizes smaller than me thought she was “fat” then I must be a whale.
I also think one of the biggest problems was that no one ever talked to me about what I could do to change the way I looked and the way I felt about myself. I knew that diet was a factor, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how I could change my diet to be healthful and weight-loss promoting at the same time. I knew that physical activity was a factor, but I didn’t know how to be more physically active in a way that was, again, both healthy and weight-loss promoting. I began weighing myself compulsively every day, then twice a day, then three times a day. For some time I would weigh myself before and after every meal. When I would go to the gym, and that was sporadic at best, I would spend 2 hours on a cardio machine.
But I wasn’t losing weight.
Towards the end of high school, I started to severely restrict my diet. I stopped eating breakfast, rarely ate lunch, and would purge after dinner. The only sustenance I got for a long time was whatever I retained from dinner and a Powerade that I would drink throughout the day.
But I lost weight.
This is only one potential and harmful outcome that children with weight issues face if those issues aren’t dealt with in a way that promotes healthy weight loss AND positive self-esteem. Many kids will continue down a path of unhealthy eating and sedentary living only to become more overweight and have more health problems.
FYI: I’m totally fine now. This experience is probably what sparked my passion for health and fitness, and what has led me to where I am today. So I’m incredibly grateful to have overcome these struggles and to now empower others to overcome them as well.
So what can we do to help children tackle weight problems?
First, a weight problem should NEVER be approached as a physical attractiveness or self-worth problem. On the flip side, overweight and obesity should also not be glorified or condoned, and should not be ignored. These are serious health problems that need to be addressed, but in a healthy and effective way.
Instead, we should start by educating ourselves on how to eat healthfully and get proper physical activity so that we can educate our children and set a good example for them to follow. You ARE a role model to your kids, even if they don’t say it or they flat out deny it. Believe it or not, kids really do look to their parents for how to act and what to do in various situations.
When speaking to children about being overweight or obese, it’s important to emphasize that neither have to be permanent and that by living a healthy lifestyle, we can control whether or not we remain overweight or obese. Teaching (and showing) children (1) that they can control this, and (2) HOW to control this will give them a sense of self-efficacy, empowerment, and confidence while helping them to lose the weight in a healthy way.
Another strategy is to find physical activities that your children enjoy and encourage them to participate fully in them. While this is somewhat easier if your child enjoys team sports, not all children like team sports — I definitely did not. It’s especially important for those children to find other activities they enjoy. For example, they may enjoy dance, yoga, or bike riding. Also, finding things you can do together as a family is incredibly effective. Not only does it promote healthy weight loss, but it also nurtures family bonds and a feeling of conquering something together. Some ideas include family hikes or bike rides, swimming, playing tennis or golf together, doing yard work or household chores, and walking around a museum rather than going to a movie.
Notably, the American Heart Association recommends focusing on how the entire family (not just the child) can work on becoming healthier. This shifts the focus from the child’s weight to getting healthy together, and creates a supportive environment conducive to both physical and mental health rather than making the child a target.
Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor who can give nutrition and physical activity recommendations or refer you to the appropriate professional. Decide whether or not it would be best to discuss your concerns privately or with your child present. If you want your child present, you may consider chatting with him or her about healthier living before going to the doctor and, when at the doctor’s, focusing on how the family can live a healthier lifestyle rather than on the child’s weight.
Do you have any other suggestions about approaching weight issues with your child? Let us know in the comments! If you found this article helpful or interesting, please feel free to like, comment on, or share it!