Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe: Don’t ignore obesity; talk to your child
As difficult as it is for parents to acknowledge that their child is overweight, it is even more daunting for them to figure out how to begin to talk to the child about losing weight. Many parents wonder if they should have the discussion at all.
Some experts worry that discussing weight issues with kids may create body image problems. But many experts, including me, feel the exact opposite.
It is crucial to talk with your child, because overweight kids know they have a problem and are in huge pain as a result.
The long-term issues of childhood obesity are well known: heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke, exercise intolerance, diabetes, back and leg problems and self-esteem issues.
The life expectancy for obese kids may very well be lower due to these issues, and that is a major concern. We all should have a sense of urgency to help these kids turn their lives around and help them start safely shedding pounds.
Where should you start?
First, call your pediatrician to discuss any medical issues that need to be controlled -- either before weight loss begins or during weight loss. This will vary by child.
Second, studies have taught us that one big talk won’t do the trick. Small conversations over time will work and will help you build a strong bridge of communication. That bridge will be your best tool to help your child through this journey.
Early conversations typically need to focus on why losing weight is so important. Focus on good health and future life goals, and don’t dwell on the past.
It helps kids of all ages to learn that body weight is really a reflection of food intake and energy used through exercise.
The Internet can be one of your best allies for reinforcing positive messages of health and fitness to your overweight child. Here’s a list of some of my favorite nutrition and fitness Web sites:
www.kidshealth.org (Kids Health)
www.teengrowth.com (Teen Growth)
http://teamnutrition.usda.gov/ (Team Nutrition)
www.bam.gov/index.html (CDC Body and Mind)
www.thinfromwithinteens.com (free podcasts and advice)
Once you have the motivation, you have to work on changing eating and fitness habits.
For the best long-term results, expect a slow steady pace and don’t change too much too quickly. Make sure fitness is not only fun but is an activity in which your child is interested.
Keep in mind that your child may be a bit self-conscious. Sometimes more individual fitness plans work better than group programs.
For nutrition, be realistic that your goal is to teach healthy eating for life. The overriding messages should be that no food is bad, all foods can be enjoyed in moderation and some foods can be eaten more liberally than others.
When talking to your kids about food, it helps to point out that food intake is always balanced by how much we move during the day. The food pyramid for kids can really help kids of all ages visualize what they should be eating and in what amounts.
Finally, if your child has a great deal of weight to lose, eating a healthy diet and exercising alone may not be enough. You may have to explore a formal weight loss plan or programs offered at many children’s hospitals. The key is finding a program that has experience with tweens and teens, teaches portion control and emphasizes healthy habits for life.
Finally, don’t ever view the scale as your guide to success. The best indicator for a successful weight-loss program in kids is the boost in self-esteem.
Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P. is a pediatrician and mother of two from Wayland, Mass. She is a columnist with the Gatehouse family of publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org