At a recent picnic with my extended family, my 8-year-old child and a 12-year-old nephew were discussing the calorie content of a certain food. My mother commented to me that she didn’t even know what a calorie was when she was their age let alone be worried about it.
And as a parent, my mother certainly didn’t worry about whether I was getting the right number of minutes of physical activity each day.
Times have changed. Obesity and eating disorders are on the rise among children under the age of 12. One might lay the blame on any or a combination of the following: technology, safety, shifts in parents working more or outside the home, or food choices.
Rather than playing the blame game, however, perhaps we need to step back and reflect on our reaction to weight and childhood obesity.
In our well-intended fight against obesity, have we yelled too loudly, sending the wrong messages to children? Put too much emphasis on weight rather than health? Created feelings of anxiety and regret around food and numbers on a scale?
How do you talk to kids about food, health, exercise and weight?
Here are few suggestions:
Be a role model. Actions speak louder than words. Let your children see you enjoying all food — in reasonable portions and in the context of a nutritious diet.
Get up and play. Be active inside and outside. Dance, hop, jump, skip. Visit a park. Don’t just sit on the bench.
Be happy in your own skin. Negative talk about your weight puts the focus unnecessarily on appearance rather than health and a positive body image.
Don’t treat food as a reward. Remember food is first and foremost nourishment. This one gets complex as food is ingrained in our culture, making it difficult to separate food from emotions. But try to focus on the occasion (for example, a birthday) and not the food (cake).
Stay connected. Plan, cook and eat meals together. You can see firsthand how your child chooses foods and portion sizes. Gently guide his or her choices. Watch for red flags of a possible eating disorder, such as eliminating foods or entire food groups, and strange behaviors with food or at meal times.
Talk about cues. Educate kids about listening to their body’s hunger cues rather than eating in response to external cues such as “it looks good” or “I’m watching TV so I need a snack.”
As kids grow and mature, their body image and self-esteem evolve. If you have concerns that your child has issues related to weight or food, talk to your health care provider, sooner rather than later.