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The "Skinny" On Childhood Obesity

By Abigail Natenshon,

American children are falling prey to childhood obesity

Our nation’s children are fatter than ever. One out of four school age children are now overweight and one out of eight are obese; these are twice the proportions found twenty years ago. Five million children are reported to be obese and another six million are overweight. Obesity is a risk factor for four of the 19 leading causes of death in this country, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. At least half of obese children over six and 79 to 80 percent of obese adolescents become obese adults.

Childhood obesity stems from a variety of causes

Genetic predispositions towards obesity may be triggered or exacerbated by poor eating habits and dysfunctional attitudes about food and eating within the family. Any of these factors alone will not necessarily lead to obesity. All of them together do put a child at high risk. Contributing to the problem, there has been a widespread decline in physical activity, both in school and out. Fewer than half of the nation’s high schools offer physical education. Financial cut backs have hit after school sports programs as well. As a result of this and other factors, 26 percent of children between the ages of 8 and 16 go home to watch four or more hours of television each day.

  1. Parents are less at home these days, leaving kids to fend for themselves for snacks and meals. Only 50% of American families eat dinners together anymore.
  2. We are a nation of convenience eaters, with fast foods becoming increasingly available and affordable.
  3. Extreme and imbalanced eating has become the norm; restaurant portion sizes are increasing in size.
  4. Too many of us have forgotten what truly healthy eating is. Many believe that its okay to skip meals, that nobody eats breakfast and that fat-free eating is the healthiest way to eat.
  5. We have become a dieting nation. Fifty percent of kids, by the time they are in the fifth grade, have been on diets. In actual fact, diets are the worst way to lose weight. Children who diet are more likely to become obese adults.
  6. Many of our schools feature not only candy and soda vending machines, but on-site outlets for fast food chains.


Understanding the problem of childhood overweight and obesity

Parents with an overweight child need to recognize that the weight itself is less of a problem than is the child’s unhealthy eating lifestyle that might have led to the problem in the first place. The goals for an overweight child is not to lose weight, as much as to develop a healthier eating lifestyle.  If your child is a healthy eater and has an active lifestyle, becoming a little soft around the middle hardly warrants concern. In situations such as these, particularly if the child has a biological predisposition to overweight, the extra weight is less likely to pose a health risk. Parents need to watch for self esteem problems, bullying, a propensity to develop a clinical eating disorder, etc, all of which might emerge around these conditions as well.  It is for parents to take action.

TIP: It is important to recognize too, that when teenage girls reach puberty, 20 percent of their weight gained needs to be in fat in order for them to maintain enough estrogen in their system to allow their reproductive system to mature and function.

Remember that dieting, skipping meals and other forms of disordered eating puts children at risk for obesity in years to come. Statistics show that children who diet when young have a greater chance to become overweight adults.

  • Dieting damages metabolic function.
  • Dieting creates poor eating habits.
  • Dieting is a form of disordered eating that may ultimately lead to a clinical eating disorder in the genetically susceptible child. Eating disorders are the most lethal of all the mental health disorders, killing and maiming their young victims.


Emotional problems typically underlie behavioral ones

Beyond the physical hazards of carrying extra weight, which include high blood pressure, heart problems, juvenile diabetes, etc., parents need to understand that emotional problems and concerns, more often than not, underlie these conditions. Obesity typically indicates:

  1. Poor self esteem and a negative body image.
  2. Unhealthy attitudes and values about food may get carried into adulthood.
  3. Out of control feelings and behaviors that can spread to areas beyond food and eating.
  4. There may be a preoccupation and compulsive thoughts about food and eating that can interfere with the child’s ability to concentrate and learn.
  5. The child may have turned to food and eating to somehow affect or camouflage feelings and emotions. In such cases, dysfunctional eating patterns become pseudo-solutions for real problems, creating more problems, not less.


Ten steps to rectifying childhood obesity

In order for a youngster to be able to lose a substantive amount of weight and keep it off, changes in eating lifestyle will need to occur, not through dieting… but through learning how to eat differently, not less. Healthy eating consists of eating three meals a day, of nutritionally dense, varied foods that include a balance of all the essential food groups. Along with this, physical activity is a must.


If parents feel concerned about a child's eating lifestyle or overweight:

  1. It is best to consult a physician initially, in order to rule out gastroenterological, thyroid or hormonal problems, leading to or resulting from the condition.
  2. Particularly when emotional issues are instrumental in your child’s becoming overweight, it is for parents to step in to encourage their child to recognize, define and resolve underlying emotional issues that may be driving the dysfunctional behaviors in an effort to resolve problems at their source.
  3. It is for parents to supply healthful meals regularly for the child, and then to sit down to eat these meals together with the child, listening to thoughts and feelings, at the same time as observing eating behaviors. Children learn to like what they are accustomed to eating and what they see others eating. Unless they suffer from childhood feeding disorders, children will eat whatever is handy in a household, so parents wield a lot of influence through the foods they purchase, without becoming involved in a struggle of wills.
  4. Particularly when it comes to food, it is unwise for parents to become dogmatic or restrictive about particular foods or food groups. It is more important for parents to provide a healthy example, rather than setting rigid limits around food and eating.
  5. The overweight child needs encouragement to turn off the television, put down the computer game and go outside to play, to ride his bike, walk the dog, etc. He should not be allowed to eat in front of the television, but to sit down at the table to eat with a plate in front of him.
  6. Parents should engage in activities, sports, and healthful exercise with their child. Perhaps you might want to go for a bike ride together with your child, take tennis lessons together, or walk to the library to return your books, rather than drive.
  7. Positive parental attention of any type creates positive self-esteem. Here might be a way to accomplish two positive goals with your child at once. Obesity and a healthy self-esteem are an unlikely duo.
  8. Parents need to focus on health, not appearance, and on more activity, not less food. Children who are obese need to develop a healthier eating lifestyle; they need to eat differently, not less.
  9. Remember that extreme behaviors…in any life sphere… are unhealthy and may indicate mood disorders.  It is not uncommon for kids to attempt to soothe anxiety and solve problems through the use and abuse of food.
  10. Bullying or teasing from peers is not uncommon for overweight youngsters. Talk to your overweight child about whether he or she has ever experienced teasing in the schoolyard and if so, discuss how he or she felt about it, and what he or she did or might do in response in the future.

Encourage your child to visit
to read many kid-friendly articles of interest to him or her about healthy eating, healthy weight management and body image concerns.

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