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.

 Warning! 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.

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