By Dr. Sue Cohen, November 23, 2022
The holidays are here, and it’s not uncommon for people of all ages, including children, to pack on extra pounds. The sugary treats and heavy meals are abundant, and many kids tend to be less active during the colder weather.
But regardless of the season, it’s always a good time to talk to your kids about healthy eating—especially with many adults and children alike having put on weight from stress eating and inactivity due to the pandemic.
Sadly, being significantly overweight is common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity 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? Behavior and habits are the most likely factors, with technology playing a big role. Many families have become sedentary, with TV, computers and videogames as the culprits. And it’s not just the kids; parents, too, are often modeling these behaviors.
Of course, shaming a child for being overweight is never appropriate. From a very early age, parents should nurture a positive body image with their kids, focusing on their bodies as the miracles they are! But if your child’s or teen’s weight has become a health concern, you can address it in a loving, non-critical way.
Approach the issue as a family topic rather than focusing on an individual child. The message should be that we all need to eat more healthy foods like fruit, vegetables and lean proteins and less fatty, fried or sugary foods so we feel better and have more energy. 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.
Here are some guidelines when broaching the subject of weight with your children, as per recommendations from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
Foster open dialogue. Encourage your kids to share their thoughts and feelings about body image. When children discuss feelings about weight, be sure to listen and acknowledge that the feelings are real. 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.
Take action. Children learn fast, and they learn best by example. Teach children habits that will help keep them healthy for life. Make it easy for kids to eat smart and move often. 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.
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 and ask for suggestions on making positive changes in your family’s eating habits and activity levels.
Seek advice. Look for a registered dietitian 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.
An important final note: If you are among the Long Islanders whose financial issues make it difficult to access healthy, fresh foods, don’t despair. Community Solidarity shares nutritious food to those in need, with 50% of that being fresh produce. To find out more, visit communitysolidarity.org.
Dr. Sue Cohen is the Director of Director of Clinical Services at Right from the Start at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, the leading children’s mental health agency on Long Island. Learn more at www.northshorechildguidance.org.