It also has never been easier to put on excess weight. The number of obese children has doubled in only 10 years. The Canadian Medical Association is calling childhood obesity an epidemic.
Research shows some children may inherit a tendency to store extra body fat. Still, genetics alone can’t account for the sudden increase in child weight disturbance in recent years. Whether or not genetics makes a child more at risk for excess weight gain, the environment the child lives in will decide the outcome. Despite outside influences, family life largely determines a child’s eating and activity patterns.
Today the family meal seems to be going the way of the dodo bird with kids and parents alike eating on the run. High-fat snack foods and sweet drinks – often gobbled in front of the TV or in the car – fill the gap. Just watching TV ads or cruising by fast-food outlets is enough to make a child (or parent!) feel hungry.
Yet despite the temptations, not all children overeat. There is another piece to the puzzle. Studies suggest energy output may warrant even more attention. Life in the fast lane may be hectic, but it’s not particularly energetic. Kids spend hours sitting in cars and buses, watching TV, playing video games, and staring at the computer.Their minds may be occupied, but their bodies are left out of the action.
Children don’t develop weight problems overnight – their weight gradually slips out of control. At any time, a parent can reach out and gently guide a child back on track. One thing is certain: it’s easier to prevent weight and body image problems than to correct them. Whether the goal is prevention or treatment, evidence points to the importance of a family-centred approach.
Ever wonder if your child has a weight problem, or is likely to develop one? Begin by asking your family doctor or public health nurse to review your child’s growth records and take new measurements. The pattern of growth, and the proportion of height to weight, are more important than the numbers.
It’s a good idea to discuss any concerns privately, without the child present. Most importantly, there may not be a problem. Kids come in a wide range of healthy body sizes. Parents often discover their larger (or smaller) than average kids are growing normally according to their own genetic blueprints. No need to raise unnecessary concerns.
When children do seem to be getting off track, it doesn’t help to make them feel as if they have done something wrong. Well-meaning parents send the wrong message when they march a child into the doctor’s office saying, “Tell him what he should be eating,” or “Tell her to get more exercise.” Guilt is a poor motivator – and it makes childhood a lot less carefree.
Make it a family plan. Who wouldn’t benefit by paying a little more attention to eating, exercise, and ease of mind? It’s never wise to ignore these hallmarks of healthy living, even if parents or siblings appear not to have any weight issues.
For the child who seems to be gaining weight too quickly, discuss realistic goals with your health care provider. For young children, the plan should help them to 'grow into' their present weight, rather than lose weight. The aim will be to slow the rate of weight gain, while allowing growth in height to proceed normally.
Dieting can stunt a child’s growth. For several reasons, it’s not appropriate to put children on diets. Dieting puts a body into a starvation mode, making it more difficult to lose weight, and easy to regain any weight lost. Following a diet also overrides the body’s natural signals for hunger and satisfaction, creating a dependency on outside cues to eat.
Studies show children are more likely to have weight problems if their parents are very controlling with food. Food restriction leads to irregular eating, the greatest foe of weight control. What’s the other choice? Offer
food at regular times, and help kids learn to listen to their bodies, eating when they’re hungry and stopping when they’re satisfied. Keep in mind that the human body tends to shout when it needs food, but whisper when it’s had enough! Those whispers will go unnoticed unless time is set aside to relax and eat, and to enjoy the company of others without outside distractions.
Parents surveyed frequently claim they don’t have enough time to spend with their children. When has a parent ever regretted taking an active play break with the kids?
It’s more important to keep the family’s focus on what everyone can gain – energy, strength, and a sense of well being – rather than on the weight some may lose. The reality is this: healthy eating and regular exercise may not make your child slim. If weight is considered the only way to measure success, a parent with even the best intentions may set up a child for failure.
Put away the bathroom scales and think about why you want to help your child avoid excess weight gain. Perhaps you’re concerned about future health problems. Remember that emotional health is the key to a happy, productive life. Guilt about eating can last a lifetime. Surely nothing done in the name of health should make a child feel bad!
It’s natural for kids to care about the way they look, but important to help them keep their appearance in perspective. Take care not to criticize your own body. The three-year-old who says she feels fat in her snowsuit has heard an adult use those words!
Sadly, some children want to lose weight because other kids have made fun of them. It’s tough to explain why some people need to put others down in order to feel okay themselves. Still, it is important to try. It’s also essential to help your child feel safe from harassment in the neighbourhood and at school. Ask for advice and support from a counsellor at your child’s school or the local mental health centre. Many schools have access to excellent anti-bullying programs.
Someone once asked a small child what he wanted to be when he grew up. He thought for a moment and replied, "Myself. Only bigger." What better goal could a family have than to help all children realize their own natural weights by enjoying healthy living together!