Are you worried about your child’s weight? Tips for talking about it.
Dr Alanna Hannegraf
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It’s no surprise that the pandemic, quarantine, and the shift to distance learning have led to skyrocketing childhood obesity rates.
In just one year, the rates have jumped from 13% to 15.4%, an all-time high, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. Meanwhile, medical education dealing with this problem is sorely lacking. Many pediatricians and family physicians receive little or no training in the treatment of obesity in adults, let alone in children.
Overweight and obesity are difficult diagnoses because the causes and treatments involve many factors. Weight is influenced by a complex interplay between nutrition, energy expenditure, genetics, sleep, emotions, socioeconomic status, culture, hormones, other diseases, medications, and the environment. The good news is that with the help of a knowledgeable healthcare professional, family support, and lifestyle changes, you can constructively address these health issues with your children.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, discuss it with your child’s doctor. If your child is diagnosed with overweight or obesity, be sure to de-stigmatize the language you use. For example, saying to your child: “You cannot have dessert, you are obese”, will inevitably cause friction, even permanent damage. Choose your words carefully; humiliating, bullying and labeling children will backfire and may frighten them emotionally.
It is especially important to make sure that treating the disease does not feel like punishment. Conversely, food should not be used as a reward. The Obesity Medicine Association recently updated their guidelines for treating pediatric obesity, and one of the fundamentals is to avoid using food as a reward.
Another well-intentioned, but ultimately destructive, practice is the “clean plate club”. Children who are forced to eat everything off their plate will learn to ignore their body’s signals that they are satisfied, or worse yet, that they are full.
The next step is to look at yourself in the mirror. How do you model healthy habits? What does your relationship with food look like? Do you prioritize sleep and exercise? Often times, the key to changing your children’s habits is to change your own.
By incorporating these steps, this is what a constructive conversation with your child might look like:
Open by requesting permission: Would it be acceptable to talk about a sensitive subject brought up by the doctor?
Use de-stigmatizing language and check for understanding: The pediatrician said you were obese the last time you visited. What do you know about obesity?
Stay based on the facts. The reason I’m worried is because obese children have a much higher risk of other problems like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, even cancer. Over time, these diseases can cause strokes, heart attacks, and death.
Check their feelings. Listen. Reply:It makes me sad to think that you are getting sick. How does this make you feel?
Drive home point: I want you to know that the most important thing for me is your health and happiness. It’s not about a number on the scale or about your appearance.
Offer commitment and support: I want to work on family health. What can we do together to eat better, exercise more, and get enough sleep?
Reflect: Thanks for telling me about this. I heard you say (recap your child’s responses). I can understand where you are coming from, and I am proud of your openness. I think we can do things step by step. What should be our first step?
With compassion, persistence and teamwork, pediatric obesity can be treated. It might even save your child’s life.
Free and engaging ways to exercise with kids
Walk with the Y! If you’re looking for free and engaging ways to exercise with your kids, consider joining other walkers every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. until August 25 at Alton Baker Park to Walk with the Y! Each week has a different theme, including Superhero Day on Wednesday July 21 and the Bling during the end of summer celebration on August 25.
Progress for social justice: Another program to check out is the free Strides for Social Justice app, available for download from the iOS or Android app stores. Choose from five routes and learn about the milestones and contributions of local black residents as you visit different neighborhoods in Eugene.
Dr Alanna Hannegraf is a family physician with the PeaceHealth Medical Group. PeaceHealth, based in Vancouver, Washington, is a not-for-profit Catholic health care system providing care to communities in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. For more ways to stay healthy, www.peacehealth.org/healthyyou.