Do you have a child or teen who is obese? If so, they are not alone. In the United States, the percentage of children and teens who are obese has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, nearly 1 in 5 school age U.S. children and young people (6 to 19 years) is considered obese. When you factor in those who are considered overweight but not yet obese, the figure rises to 31%.
Why the dramatic increase? While it’s true that family history, genetics and metabolism can influence weight, that doesn’t explain why the percentage of overweight/obese youngsters has gone up so much in a relatively short period.
Behavior and habits are the more likely culprits. According to Dr. Sue Cohen, Director of Early Childhood and Psychological Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, technology in particular plays a significant role.
“Many families have become sedentary with TV, computers and videogames as the culprits,” she says. “If parents are inactive and spending a lot of time on their phones or iPads, they need to shift their behaviors and lead as role models for their kids.”
Dr. Cohen recommends approaching the issue as a family topic rather than focusing on an individual child. “The message should be that we all need to eat healthier and we can all start a fitness program as a family,” she says. “You don’t want to make your child feel badly about themselves, so focusing on healthy eating and activity rather than appearance is extremely important.”
Why do kids overeat? Emotional issues are often factors when it comes to weight gain. Says Dr. Cohen, “Overeating is often a result of anxiety or depression.” If your child is exhibiting signs of these conditions, professional therapy is highly recommended.
Finding Healthy Foods
Are you among the Long Islanders whose location and/or financial issues make it difficult to access healthy, fresh foods? Many soup kitchens and food pantries don’t have a large supply of fresh groceries, but Community Solidarity shares nutritious food to those in need, with 50% of that being fresh produce. To find out more, visit http://communitysolidarity.org.
Here are some things to keep in mind when broaching the subject of weight with your children, from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
Encourage open dialogue. Go ahead and talk with your children about weight and encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings about body image whenever they arise. When children discuss feelings about weight with you, be sure to listen and acknowledge that the feelings are real. If you have had similar experiences, it may help to share them. Explain that people come in all different shapes and sizes and you love your child no matter what.
Don’t make negative comments. Judging your own body or your child’s can result in lasting detrimental effects to your child’s body image and relationship with food. Set a good example for children in the way you talk about your own body as well as others. Skip the lure of fad dieting yourself.
Take action. Children learn fast, and they learn best by example. Teach children habits that will help keep them healthy for life. In general, if your child is elementary age or younger and you have some weight concerns, don’t talk about it; just start making lifestyle changes as a family. The best thing you can do is make it easy for kids to eat smart and move often. Serve regular, balanced family meals and snacks. Limit the time your child spends watching television or playing video games. Look for ways to spend fun, active time together.
Avoid the blame game. Never yell, scream, bribe, threaten or punish children about weight, food or physical activity. If you turn these issues into parent-child battlegrounds, the results can be harmful. Shame, blame and anger are setups for failure. The worse children feel about their weight, the more likely they are to overeat or develop an eating disorder.
Talk with your healthcare provider. If a health professional mentions a concern about your child’s weight, speak with the professional privately. Discuss specific concerns about your child’s growth pattern and ask for suggestions on making positive changes in your family’s eating habits and activity levels.
Seek advice. Check out local programs and professionals who specialize in youth. Look for a registered dietitian nutritionist with a specialty in pediatric weight management. Many hospitals and clinics have comprehensive programs with education and activities for both kids and adult family members. Some of these options may be covered by your health insurance plan.