As we begin a new school year, it seems appropriate to recognize September as National Childhood Obesity Awareness month. Of course there are numerous body issues the youth face, ranging from underweight to overweight, per the national awareness topic, this article will primarily examine issues pertaining to overweight children and adolescents. In a country where obesity continues to be a rising epidemic for adults, we can sometimes forget that children suffer from it as well. Aside from body image issues and the possibility for peer-to-peer bullying/teasing, why is childhood obesity even an issue? Why should it be of any concern? They’ll grow out of it…right?
According to information gathered by the Center of Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years (1,2). Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5 to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (3). Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age two were more likely to be obese as adults (4-8). Keep in mind that this data doesn’t even touch the surface for what obesity causes on an emotional or psychological level.
You Are What You Think
Think back to those high school days, or maybe you are in them now. Was a healthy diet number one on the priority list? Or was it friends, activities, social life, fitting in, etc.? I’m guessing the latter. Truthfully, I sure wasn’t sitting around thinking about cardiovascular disease or diabetes. I was, however, constantly aware of my body, and like so many kids and adults, I relied on the opinions of others to validate my positive or negative thoughts.
Magazines, movies, music videos, all showed perfect bodies (bodies that I sure didn’t have). There were never disclaimers that said, “By the way teens, these women are through puberty, have special trainers/nutritionists/makeup artists/etc. AND have technology to remove any and all flaws.” There are also other classmates who feed insecurities with name calling, teasing, or flat out bullying. At the time, you are completely unaware that these individuals are most-likely dealing with their own set of demons (but that’s another story). So with all these pressures, you internalize and shame yourself.
Helping Youth Handle Issues Of Obesity
Now think of today! We have more media exposure THAN EVER before. One minute we are being told to eat a huge burger, fries, ice cream, or pizza, the next we are being told to be sexy and look a certain way. If this affects adults, you better believe it’s affecting kids and teens. Youth are especially vulnerable to these types of messages. Fit in with pizza and convenience foods, but look like this person because that’s what’s attractive. Ugh! Where do we step in?
Realistically, we can’t demand and enforce that all advertising agencies place a disclaimer of how much work has gone into creating a flawless model image, we can’t force food companies to admit their products will absolutely lead to unhealthy outcomes…. But we CAN still help.
Here are three ideas to help the youth in your life handle issues of obesity and self-esteem:
1.) Be an example yourself
• Eat healthy choices, and allow flexibility in moderation for the splurge meals.
• Start an activity regimen, offer to include them, but never force.
• Watch your words. Don’t negatively comment on other people for being: too skinny, too fat, too muscular, or other physical-based characteristics. This behavior reinforces finding body flaws in others and themselves.
• Similarly, avoid complaining about your own flaws. Instead, embrace your weaknesses as the learning and improvement opportunities they are. This teaches a child or teen that they too can embrace themselves and work toward a healthy goal.
EXAMPLE: I am overweight, but that’s ok, because I am determined to find a positive way to move forward in order to reach a healthier weight.
2.) Make it about them
• Build your children up on ALL levels: personality, intelligence, talents, as well as physical appearance. This helps to send the message that a person is a holistic balance of many things, not just outward appearance.
• Find a way to discuss their body goals and be sensitive to what they say. It’s easy to want to say, “You’re not___, stop feeling that way.” Think about it: Does that work for you? Doesn’t work for me! lol. Listen, ask questions and show understanding.
• Find a way to support a plan THEY create. Walking in the morning or after school. Getting a gym membership. Joining a team or activity club.
• Create fun recipe ideas that make them feel like the rest of their peer group, while still being healthy.
3.) Reclaim media
• Look over who they “follow” or look at, discuss what goes into those “perfect” shots, (lights, lenses, angles, Photoshop, filters, etc.)
• Find positive role models and suggest they follow them too.
• Share positive messages with them.
• Ask for their thoughts and feedback when they look at certain messages or images, respond to their thoughts with support and clarification where needed.
Never forget or underestimate the power YOU have in your child’s success. They may act like they don’t care or aren’t listening, but just stay positive and keep supporting.
Special Message for the Youth (if you are reading): Hey chicas (and guys too)! Guess what? Our bodies are crazy when we begin maturing…especially as females. There are so many hormones and moving parts. Everything just looks awkward and wrong. But guess what? Everything will turn out right, you just have to be patient. I was never an athlete, I didn’t really figure out how to care for my body until into my mid-twenties. But you can be better than me!
-Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
-Don’t stress out about it—just think balance. Protein the size of your palm, handfuls of veggies, snack on some fruit, and bring in whole grains for energy. Eat to nourish your growing body.
-Move more, by yourself or with a friend. Find something you enjoy doing.
-Be nice to yourself and others.
-Be healthy for you.
(Below is a picture of me around 13 years old, just to show…things change)
As we begin the 2015 school year, let’s make a point to be a little more active, eat a little healthier, and think a little more positively.
1.) Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association 2014;311(8):806-814.
2.) National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2011: With Special Features on Socioeconomic Status and Health[pdf 9.4M]. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.
3.) Freedman DS, Zuguo M, Srinivasan SR, Berenson GS, Dietz WH. Cardiovascular risk factors and excess adiposity among overweight children and adolescents: the Bogalusa Heart Study. Journal of Pediatrics 2007;150(1):12–17.
4.) Surgeon General. The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation. [pdf 840K]. Rockville, MD, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.
5.) Guo SS, Chumlea WC. Tracking of body mass index in children in relation to overweight in adulthood. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999;70:S145–148.
6.) Freedman DS, Kettel L, Serdula MK, Dietz WH, Srinivasan SR, Berenson GS. The relation of childhood BMI to adult adiposity: the Bogalusa Heart Study. Pediatrics2005;115:22–27.
7.) Freedman D, Wang J, Thornton JC, et al. Classification of body fatness by body mass index-for-age categories among children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 2009;163:801–811.
8.) Freedman DS, Khan LK, Dietz WH, Srinivasan SA, Berenson GS. Relationship of childhood obesity to coronary heart disease risk factors in adulthood: the Bogalusa Heart Study. Pediatrics 2001;108:712–718.