Childhood Obesity: Practise What You Preach (May 4, 2013)

For my May 4 article about parenting and childhood obesity, Childhood Obesity: Practise What You Preach either click here or keep reading!

 

As a country, we say it so frequently that it’s almost too trite to repeat — and yet, nothing seems to change.

We are overweight.

Not only are we overweight, but our children are overweight. Shockingly, alarmingly, dangerously overweight.

I’m not a doctor, and I’m not a parent. I speak to you as a formerly obese child. A formerly obese child with fantastic parents, who, by no fault of their own, had no idea how to deal with their daughter’s ever-expanding belly.

How could they?

Two of the fittest people I know, my parents had approximately zero experience dealing with weight loss, let alone weight loss with a fragile seven-year-old. They got a lot of it right, and, naturally, made some mistakes. Weight loss isn’t easy, and it especially isn’t easy in children.

Parenting an overweight child is the reality for more people than ever before. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than one-third of American children are either overweight or obese; the numbers are the same for Canadian kids. This number has tripled — I repeat, tripled — in the past 30 years.

If this pattern were to continue, in another 30 years, 99% of children would be either overweight or obese. This is a future that, both independently and collectively, we do not want.

So why is it happening?

The CDC defines it as result of a “caloric imbalance;”“too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed.” This is a rather nice way of saying, like their adult counterparts, North American children are eating too much, and moving too little.

Too many video games, too much time on the computer, too much TV. Soft drinks, potato chips, Happy Meals. All of these things are making our children fatter than ever before. We know this — and yet, the pattern continues. We now have a generation of overweight children becoming overweight adults.

I’m one of the rare ones. Eating disorder aside, I came out of my childhood obesity relatively unscathed; I’m now a very healthy, physically fit person. Most aren’t this lucky. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, overweight children are “much more likely to become overweight adults.”

This means they are also “much more likely” to develop heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, cancer, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea; not to mention the social and psychological problems that come along with obesity. A 2005 study in Pediatrics showed that “children who became obese as early as age two were more likely to be obese adults.”

“There is no handbook when it comes to raising children” is what we always hear. Well, the handbooks for raising overweight children are even more scarce. What is a parent to do?

Naturally, if you want your child to lose weight, you’ll try to control their eating and encourage exercise. Should be simple, right?

Be careful.

I saw a family of five jogging down the street other day. The youngest of the group looked to be about six years old. A wee little round thing, she was about six feet behind the rest of the family and, unsurprisingly, looked as though she’d rather eat her weight in broccoli than keep running.

Children aren’t mini-adults.

They aren’t meant to jog. They aren’t meant to have a protein shake followed by some weight training in the gym. And they certainly aren’t meant to think of exercise as a daily chore. Frankly, they shouldn’t think of exercise, per se, at all. Not yet.

If you’d like to ensure either a) a lifelong hate of anything to do with physical fitness or b) an eating disorder, force your children to exercise like adults.

Now, I’m not saying you should let your kids watch cartoons and eat pop-tarts all day. Far from it. But avoid standardizing, scheduling, and strictly enforcing your child’s exercise.

Don’t pathologize your child’s exercise. The moment that you create a “system” for them, you’ve told them they’re different. In case you don’t remember, “different” is not what you want to be at age 11. Making your child feel special is wonderful when it is because they’re smart and unique. It isn’t so wonderful when it is because they’re getting chubby. Don’t push too hard.

Play tag. Throw around a frisbee or a baseball. Kick a soccer ball. If they like the idea, sign them up for ballet or hockey or soccer. Don’t set them up to hate even the thought of breaking a sweat, and whatever you do, don’t create a big issue around the idea of exercise.

The same principle goes for the dinner table.

Don’t give yourself one set of rules and your child another. If you’re eating a turkey burger and a salad, give your child a turkey burger and a salad (not a big bowl of macaroni and cheese.) Make healthy choices in front of your child, and watch as they mirror you. Your children look up to you, even if they insist otherwise. Keep clean foods around the house, limit snacking, and set a healthy example — but don’t obsess. Actions truly speak louder than words in this case. You don’t need constantly tell your child how healthy you’re being to really make it sink in.

Let it happen organically, and you’ll raise not only a health child, but a healthy adult as well.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the healthy cooking, fitness, and wellness website, Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at www.DiaryofaFormerlyFatGirl.com , or follow her on Twitter, @DOAFFG

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