Monday, May 9, 2011

How Can We Best Tackle Childhood Obesity?

I saw story on NBC’s Today last Friday morning about Georgia’s Children’s Health Alliance Child Obesity Campaign, and some believe the ads are alienating overweight children further. I am not completely convinced that they crossed that line. I see more kids than ever who are overweight or obese, and I don’t like it. But how do we effectively tell our kids (and their parents) that they are not healthy without making them feel bad?

Unfortunately, this is something I struggle with in my own family. I was never a thin child; I was always a little heavier (and taller) than most of the kids in school, but never to the point that I was teased about it. And yes, I admit, I am still about 30 pounds heavier than what my doctor would like me to be (but I’m successfully working on it). My husband struggled more with his weight as a child and a young adult – his mother said it’s because he is a member of the “keg” family. In both of our cases, bad genetics aside, our ability to hold on to extra pounds was nearly 100% due to the facts that we ate too much and we didn’t get enough physical activity. I hate to blame our parents and grandparents, but 1) kids don’t eat what they can’t get a hold of, and 2) they learn eating and exercise/activity habits from the people in their lives.

My husband was finally able to drop 50 pounds about 12 years ago when he adamantly asked his late grandmother, whom he visited daily, to stop providing him chips and chocolate to snack on. (Don’t you hate that it is just that easy for men to drop weight).

So, two “easy keepers” produced some offspring. In this current world of health-consciousness, image-consciousness and our easy access to food (thank you, God, farmers and our great country) you can imagine that I am concerned that my children may also one day worry about their weights and appearance like I did and still do. And unfortunately, this issue is already creeping into my relationship with my eight-year-old daughter. Like me at the same age, she carries some extra weight for a kid her height. It does not seem to bother her in the least right now, but I worry it may in the future. I don’t want that for her. Unfortunately, people judge others on their appearance. Being heavy is an automatic sign that you are not in control of your health or life.

No one can accuse me of not being aware of what healthy eating is, or not caring, or continually shoving high-sugar, high-fat treats into my kids mouths to make them happy. She has always been a wonderful eater – lots of green and yellow veggies, fresh fruits, fish, lean meats, nuts, etc. My food philosophy is “good stuff most of the time, treats some of the time.” I think it is mentally healthy to allow yourself some happy eating, just not every day. I also encourage more activity: we ride our horses (but not nearly enough), we play active games on the Wii, we go for walks, and she will occasionally work out with me if it isn’t too hard. This is all a good start, but I think we could do more.

I really, really want to blame grandparents right now – Sorry, Granny and Nana. I spent a lot of time with a doting, spoiling grandmother who let me eat as much of whatever I wanted. My daughter also has a grandmother that does just the same, even though she won’t admit it. My husband and I try to have regular conversations with Nana about what appropriate meals and snacks should be, but it just isn’t being understood to the extent we would like. My child gives me reports on what she eats on a visit, and I am usually very disappointed.

Spoiling grandparents aside, the bigger reason we are more overweight as a society than ever is because of technology. I am a true believer in making things more efficient, but many of us don’t have to exert any real physical energy to do our jobs. Same goes for kids. Instead of running the neighborhood they are glued to the TV, computers and video games. I will take some blame for that aspect of my child’s health. I don’t limit “sitting” time at my house like I should. I guess I feel it is “okay” since most of her activities are mentally enriching.

So, again, how do I and the many other caring parents out there attempt to make our children healthier without making them—or their caregivers—feel as if they are less than perfect or accepted and loved?

First, I think we need to apologize to our kids. After watching the ads of the aforementioned campaign, I believe parents and caregivers will and should feel some shame for contributing to their kids’ weight problems. (Just so someone doesn’t jump down my throat for that comment, I do realize that some weight gain is a symptom of other more serious health problems, and is not anyone’s fault. That is not the case for most people.) We should be honest about why there is a problem.

Second, we need to be committed as parents and caregivers to do what is best for our children, even if it makes them unhappy. Learn all you can about nutrition and healthy activity from the right sources: registered dieticians and certified health professionals … not self-proclaimed, celebrity experts trying to sell you something. Yes, I know it is overwhelming these days, but I always look to good-old common sense. I hate always telling my child that she can’t have a desert after every meal, or she can’t have a snack because she just ate an hour ago, but I have to.

Third, walk the talk. If we aren’t doing what we want our kids to do, why would they adopt that behavior? Make your child your accountability partner. It is fun for them to catch you doing something you shouldn’t, and it makes them more conscious of their actions.

Better health is a work in progress for my family. Writing this helped me reevaluate my tactics about healthy eating and exercising. I try to never, ever approach the subject as if I have a problem with my daughter’s appearance, but I just hope that she does not equate “healthy” with thin. I have been losing weight, but I try to say things like, “I just love being stronger,” or “I am so proud of the fact that I was able to run a mile without stopping,” instead of, “look how much skinnier I am.” We have also signed up for a competitive swim team for the summer. That may just be what the doctor ordered.

A quick note before I close – I feel very blessed to have more than enough food to get fat on in the first place. So many people across the world are not that fortunate. I can understand why some say that we need to have less cheap, processed foods available to us, but I don’t think only buying local, banning high-fructose corn syrup and suing McDonald’s is the answer. We just need to better educate those that need help and learn to treat food as a wonderful gift of fuel and nourishment rather than something that makes us feel good.


  1. Great post! I am big on teaching healthy eating to both children and adults, as well as seeing the difference between "thin" and healthy. I think this country has lost sight of that.

    I have actually been working on my own blog for a while on that topic. I had a vision for a plan on making slow gradual changes to become healthier and not overweight, and teaching people what eating healthy actually is. Also, that eating right doesn't mean you can't have delicious food and enjoy it! Now it's just a matter of getting it up and running, you know, in all my free time. :-)

  2. Excellent points and insight. I think Americans are not taking enough accountability for our obesity. We have so many food choices which I am thankful for but the bottom line is we have to balance food intake with exercise. McDonald's or any quick service restaurant to me are not to blame. It's choice and accountability for our family and I'm thankful for it.

  3. Love this post! I too, have struggled with my weight most of my life and over the past year and a half have lost 54 lbs while still eating McDonald's and even consuming HFCS. I like the motto: "eating good most of the time and treats some of the time". Blaming an industry or certain foods isn't the answer. I have a 12 year old brother and just recently talked with my mother about making changes in the family's diet now so that he doesn't have the same issues I had growing up. At 12 years old he is talking about loosing a few lbs and wondering how many "points" certain things are (those who are familiar with WW know what I'm talking about!). There is a happy medium when it comes to eating right and exercising and making it a lifestyle, my family is still trying to find that happy medium but I'm happy about the direction we are headed.


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