Hardly a day goes by when obesity doesn’t make the headlines. No wonder. More than a third of US adults are obese, with 69 percent of us either obese or overweight. Worse still, our kids are catching up with us.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity currently affects 17 percent of all children in the US – three times more than just one generation ago.
When you factor in overweight statistics, the picture is bleaker still, with the American Heart Association claiming one in three children and teens is overweight or obese (for kids, overweight is defined as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex, while obesity is defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile).
So are our kids following in our increasingly heavy footsteps – or are there other issues at play?
“Children are under a great deal of stress today with increased school demands and maintaining peer relationships,” says Dr Christine Weber, a clinical neuropsychologist based in Seaford, New York. “Food is sometimes inappropriately used as a stress reliever, or a way of coping.”
Thea Runyan, lead behavior coach for the Pediatric Weight Control Clinic at Stanford Children’s Hospital, believes emotional eating is just one of many behaviors that can lead to children gaining weight.
“There are many emotional reasons why teens overeat or eat when they aren’t hungry, such as boredom, stress, anxiety and even happiness,” says Runyan, co-founder of Kurbo Health, a mobile weight management solution for kids, teens and families.
“But there are also many environmental factors that cause teens to eat when they aren’t truly hungry. There’s food everywhere they go, from friends’ houses, to birthday parties, even after sport events. The sight and smell are very tempting and can cause overeating and ignoring the physical cues of hunger or satiety.”
Parents In Denial
One problem for parents is they may not recognize their child’s weight isn’t as healthy as it should be. For instance, a report published earlier this year by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers suggests half of parents with an overweight or obese child believe their kids don’t have weight issues.
We know parents play an essential role in preventing weight problems in their children. So what are the signs you should look for?
“Observe your children and their eating behaviors,” says Dr Weber. “Does your child eat too little or have portions that are too large? Do they excessively snack, hoard food or choose foods that are poor nutrition choices? Do they often need clothing of a different size?”
Parents should watch for subtle cues that could indicate a more serious problem too, such as kids who refuse to look at themselves in a mirror or those who hide food in their room, advises Dr. Weber.
Meanwhile, Maria Chaparro, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a Registered Dietitian specializing in pediatrics, says it’s also important to know your child or teen’s BMI percentiles. “Ideally, we want children to be within adequate percentiles for their age,” she says. “And if their weight is gradually going up, there should be a red flag.”
If your teen’s BMI is above the 85th percentile, they are overweight with a high risk of health problems. If their BMI is above the 95th percentile, their risk of health problems is even higher.
Starting the conversation
If you feel it’s time to do something about your child’s weight, look for opportunities to begin a discussion about it.
“If your teen confesses insecurity about his or her weight – when shopping for clothes or describing teasing at school – many parents’ first instinct is to comfort their child by telling them it’s not true,” says Runyan. “But don’t tell them they’re perfect. A more helpful response would be, ‘If you really feel this way, we can do something about it’.”
Dr. Gregg Kai Mishi, a bariatric surgeon and MD of the Khalili Center, warns parents to be sensitive when discussing weight issues with their kids.
“It’s unfortunately very common for parents to tell their children that they are fat and won’t have any friends, will be unpopular, will be outcasts, and that’s a terrible way to approach this problem,” he explains. “Parents need to focus on being healthy as the main motivation for their children to lose weight.”
Dr. Weber agrees. “Talking to your child about his or her weight constantly is not a good idea. Never criticize them for a weight problem or make comparisons to their thinner siblings.”
Offering to make healthier foods available and removing unhealthy foods from your home are good ways to start tackling family weight issues, says Runyan.
“Keep healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables readily available and easily accessible,” she says. “This means washed, cut and peeled, at eye level in the refrigerator. And be aware of portion sizes – learn what’s an appropriate serving and stick to it. Also try to sit your family down for meal times as often as possible. You’ll all eat slower and more mindfully, and it will help everyone learn to listen to when they’re full.”
Making the whole family more active is also crucial, especially if your teenager is glued to a computer or TV screen for hours on end (according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids and teens should limit TV/screen time to less than two hours a day).
“Instead, use interactive video games that encourage physical activity, such as the Wii Fit, Dance Revolution or other games that involve moving around instead of sitting,” says Chaparro, who’s also the founder of Nutrichicos Children’s Nutrition Center.
“Next, take the media out of the bedroom, as kids with a TV in their room watch about 90 minutes more TV a day compared to those who don’t. Family meals are also important, so keep TV and cell phones away from the dinner table.”
But if your child’s overall health is at risk – whether physical or emotional – Dr Weber recommends a visit to your pediatrician. “If there are no physical conditions, then they may be taken to a mental health professional to assess whether they have an emotional disorder,” she says.
Runyan, meanwhile, suggests exploring weight management solutions that are specially designed for kids and teens.
“In general, adult food tracker apps and mobile programs aren’t safe for use by kids under age 18 because they’re based on calorie-counting, which is not advised for children or teens,” she advises. “Focus on solutions and programs built specifically around the unique needs of kids and teens and empowering them to make healthy choices.”