Childhood obesity

In our fat-phobic culture, all overweight people endure a certain amount of criticism and discrimination. Overweight children, however, suffer the cruelest treatment in school and on the playground.

  • An overview

The U.S. government estimates that in this country about six million young people are sufficiently overweight to endanger their health. Another five million are borderline, and the problem grows larger every year. Why? Lots of reasons.

Families no longer eat regular meals together. Home cooking is no longer the primary source of meals for many people. Greasy and sugar-laden fast food is cheap, tasty, and available everywhere. Time spent in front of a TV or computer steals time from sports and other activities that burn calories. Manufacturers of snack food and soft drinks advertise their empty calories directly to children. Schools eliminate or cut back physical education classes. Because of concerns about community and neighborhood safety, parents keep their children from participating in informal, spontaneous playground activities.

What is the result of children taking in more calories and being less active than they were a decade ago? Dr. Naomi Neufeld, a pediatric endocrinologist says, “The children we see today are thirty percent heavier than the ones who were referred to us in 1990.”

Obese children are at risk physically and emotionally. Many become obese teens and then obese adults. They suffer low self-esteem and are candidates for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and many cancers. Diabetes alone can lead to damaged blood vessels, kidney failure, blindness, amputations, heart attacks, and strokes. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture predicts that obesity will soon rival smoking as a cause of preventable death. (Newsweek, July 23, 2000; page 42)

  • What to do if your child is overweight or obese
    • If your child is still a baby, don’t panic. Baby fat is normal.
    • If your child is still growing, don’t panic. Weight gain precedes growth spurts. It is not unusual for a child to gain thirty or forty pounds and then shoot up ten or twelve inches.
    • Limit couch potato time. A Stanford University pediatrician found that children who watched TV for one hour or less per day were measurably leaner than those who watched as much as they wanted to.
    • Don’t nag about food or weight. Your child will resent you and withdraw, probably to a hidden stash of food. If you try to police what your child eats, you may inadvertently create depression, shame, feelings of abandonment, anxiety, or even a life-threatening eating disorder.
    • Be especially careful if your child is a preteen daughter. Our culture teaches young women to base their self-esteem on the shape and size of their bodies. If your daughter thinks you are criticizing her appearance, she may believe that you find her unacceptable too. She may deal with her crushed feelings by becoming anorexic in an heroic effort to please you, or she may rebel and become even fatter as an expression of anger and defiance.
    • Instead of nagging, set a healthy example. Don’t give one child a diet plate while everyone else dives into fried chicken and chocolate cake. Make family meals healthy for everyone. Instead of collapsing in front of the TV after dinner, go for a walk or bike ride with the kids. On weekends take them hiking or introduce them to your favorite sport — but make sure you participate in it and don’t just watch it on TV.
    • In order to avoid rebellion and crushed feelings, when you talk to your children, focus on health, not appearance. Emphasize more activity, not less food. Diets create feelings of deprivation. For that reason they don’t work for adults, and they won’t work for kids either.

    • Be realistic about your child’s weight. Genes do make a difference. If a child is chubby but eats healthy foods in reasonable amounts, and if s/he is active and has self-control, s/he may be genetically predisposed to be heavier than average. Research suggests that this kind of extra weight is not as much of a health risk as the kind acquired via too many snack foods and too many hours on the Internet. Genetically pudgy children may be healthier chubby than if they are forced to diet to fit in with slim peers. Just make sure they understand that personal worth depends on character, not on appearance.

    • Find out if emotional stress or unhappiness is contributing to your child’s weight gain. Children may substitute food for friends when they are lonely. They also can overeat when they are bored, angry, depressed, anxious, or otherwise stressed. If you suspect your child is eating in an attempt to numb painful feelings or escape stress, talk to a qualified counselor about how to attack the underlying cause of the problem, not just the symptom of eating.

    • If you find yourself frantic or at your wits end, work with your child’s pediatrician and a therapist who is trained to work with young people to generate new ways of approaching the situation. Your child’s present and future health are worth an investment of time and money that can pay significant dividends down the road.

Please Note: ANRED information is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation and treatment. For help with the physical and emotional problems associated with eating disorders, talk to your physician and a mental health professional.