UAB internist and pediatrician provides tips on how parents can discuss weight with their children, as well as promote healthy living among their families.
Childhood obesity has risen dramatically over the past few years, affecting around 14.7 million children and adolescents. Studies show around 40 percent of overweight girls and 37 percent of overweight boys are tested about weight by family members and peers. Weight teasing increases the risk not only of weight gain, but also of binge eating and extreme weight control measures that may lead to eating disorders.
With increased health risks associated with both obesity and eating disorders, how do parents promote a healthy lifestyle to their children without prompting unhealthy behaviors?
Channing Brown, MD, an internist and pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Children’s of Alabama, discusses how parents can address weight-related situations with children and adolescents.
Minimize weight stigmas
Weight stigma alone can increase the risk of obesity or developing an eating disorder. Children generally develop weight stigmas from their family members or physicians.
“Parents assume their kids’ negative weight stigma comes from external influences such as social media or pop culture,” Brown said. “Even if they never discuss their child’s weight directly with them, negative comments about the parents’ weight or the weight of others have a significant impact on a child’s perceptions of weight.”
Brown urges parents to use weight-neutral or health-promoting language. The language avoids making comments about anyone’s body, including the parents’ own bodies. It also steers away from labeling foods as “good or bad” and instead focuses on the nutritional value or health benefits of a food.
Brown also encourages parents and physicians to repeat that everyone is born with a unique body and that, while the body mass index can be correlated in health outcomes, it is not always the best indicator of health.
Take a holistic approach to health
Recent studies reflect the complexity of obesity, and new guidelines have moved away from “watchful waiting” to comprehensive action plans. Brown encourages families to create a holistic plan to promote healthy living within their households.
“Obesity and eating disorders are complex issues, and a child’s environment and family play a huge role,” Brown said. “These are not conditions with a quick, one-solution fix, so it is important for families to create goals that take into account the bigger picture of their child’s life.”
Parents should first take time to understand the stressors in their child’s life. These could be interpersonal household stressors, such as divorce, financial issues, addictions, or environmental factors in school and social life, such as bullying or relationship issues. If there are stressors that seem to trigger unhealthy habits, parents can work with counselors, pediatricians, teachers and others to minimize them.
Brown says the next step is to set realistic health goals for the whole family. Studies show parents’ modeling healthy behavior, such as eating vegetables at family meals, setting positive examples for their kids to follow. This also includes modeling non-food-related behaviors, such as exercise. Encouraging kids to go on walks, playing a favorite sport, dancing or even doing yardwork together are great opportunities to incorporate movement into their routine while spending time together as a family.
While eating habits are not the sole contributor to risk for obesity or eating disorders, they are a significant component to overall health. Brown says to avoid going on a “family diet” as diets are the main risk factor for obesity and eating disorders. Instead, she recommends implementing the 5-2-1-0+ rule to meet daily health goals.
“Try to eat five servings of fruits or vegetables a day, get two hours or less of screen time, move your body in a healthy way for one hour a day, drink zero sugary beverages, and aim for nine hours or more of sleep nightly ,” Brown said.
Seek professional help
Children’s and adolescents’ weights fluctuate over the years, so parents should look for drastic changes in their child’s weight. Sudden changes in weight are often indicators of potential health issues and a sign to speak with a physician. Brown reminds parents to avoid voicing their concerns about their child’s weight in front of the child.
If clinical intervention is needed, Brown urges parents to visit a specialist who is experienced in pediatric weight loss or a center that focuses on interdisciplinary weight loss or eating disorder treatments.