Guest Post By: Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
Knowing that one in three Michigan children are overweight or obese, it’s crucial that parents understand the best approach to discussions around health. The physical, mental and emotional consequences of ignoring a child’s health largely outweigh the discomfort one might feel addressing it. By opening the dialogue as a family, young children become empowered to live the happiest, healthiest life possible.
The Risk at Hand
When dealing with an overweight child, parents are right to be concerned. Excess weight can lead to health problems and chronic conditions including: asthma, joint pain, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and high cholesterol. Symptoms of these conditions can take effect in early adolescents, during key developmental years. Overweight children are also at risk of the mental and emotional torment that comes with teasing, bullying, depression and low self-esteem.
Setting the Tone
When discussing a healthy lifestyle with young children, adults should frame the conversation in a way that is age-appropriate and relevant to his or her needs. For every parent, there are ways to encourage a healthy lifestyle without damaging a child’s body image or self-esteem.
- Avoid conversations around weight. According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics, children whose parents talked to them about weight or size were more likely to adopt unhealthy eating behaviors such as extreme dieting, fasting and other eating disorders. Rather than identifying the need to lose weight, parents should focus on the benefits of healthy behaviors, such as increased energy, serotonin-induced “feel good” moods and focused thoughts.
- Recognize efforts, not results. Parents should always pay attention to children demonstrating a conscious effort to eat healthier, exercise or simply learn more about health and wellness. Any conversation or mention of weight loss should be secondary to recognizing the benefits of a happier, healthier body and mind.
- No comparisons. Children should understand early in life that everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. With the nature of social media and the illusion of perfection it can create, parents should monitor their child’s use of phones and other devices. At the end of the day, there is no exact ideal weight that one should aspire to reach.
- Watch what you say. Despite what many adults may believe, most children and adolescents are heavily influenced by their parents. When parents fail to respect their own bodies, children learn to build self-esteem off appearance. An “I’m so fat” comment sends the message that weight is more important than health.
Be a Role Model
Parents should model a healthy lifestyle in the home by making nutritious meals more readily accessible and physical activity the norm. For example, by providing healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner options, children will likely make better dietary choices on their own. Integrating regular physical activity into everyday life can be as simple as family walks, morning stretches or bedtime yoga. Sedentary time – television, video games, internet surfing – should be limited to no more than two hours per day. It’s also a great idea to explore school sports and recreational programs to ensure that children and teens are engaged in moderate physical activity for at least 60 minutes every day.
Grace Derocha is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more tips on how to live a healthier lifestyle, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.