Weight

The Parent's Role Amid a Sea of Opinions

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the significance of the language we use when we talk with children about weight. The words that parents and doctors use can have a great impact on how children and teens think about, or perceive, their weight and overall health.

 

Recently, the New York Times published an article by a physician titled, “Do Parents Make Kids Fat?” This rather startling question can be thought of as an extreme example of the influence parents could have on their children’s weight and how they think about weight.

 

The first thing the article pointed out was the “tremendous stigma” we direct at parents of overweight children, whether we intend to or not. As Dr. Julie Lumeng at the University of Michigan, who was interviewed in the article, puts it, “‘Everyone looks at the parent and thinks: That parent is incompetent. They don’t care about their child. Why can’t they just make the child eat less and exercise?’”

 

These questions illustrate several assumptions people may easily make about parents of overweight children. For example, people may think that the parents do not care about their children’s health, or they simply lack the willpower to enforce healthy habits at home or read the nutrition information on the back of food packages.  However, we simply cannot make these assumptions without knowing the full story of a child’s health. This involves family history, health history, and degree of exposure to what doctors today call an “obesogenic” environment in which unhealthy fast food is more accessible and cheaper than healthy food made from scratch.

 

There are many different opinions out there about how to raise healthy children, and while there are general guidelines that indicate what healthy weight ranges may be, different families and children need different things. The physicians mentioned in the article, who even consult each other with questions, agree that a parent must trust their instinct when it comes to their child. Being mindful about the child’s environment can help with this instinct.

 

This is where our campaign with eMindful can be helpful - through increased awareness of our circumstances, we can make healthier decisions for ourselves and for our children.

Weight, Language, and Self-Image

The language we use when talking to a child about their weight is very important. Doctors say that they themselves take great care in the words they choose when they talk to a child or their family member about weight and body mass index, even if their official classification falls under obesity.

 

The New York Times recently published a piece by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, who writes that physicians try to take care in order to avoid further hurting a child who may already be unhappy about their weight. A new policy statement jointly issued from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Obesity society urges pediatricians to use seemingly neutral words instead of words like “overweight” and “fat.”

 

Past and ongoing research into the social and emotional effects of obesity agree that comments on weight can have a large impact on a child’s self esteem. According to Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a clinical psychologist who is one of the lead authors of the policy statement, “Weight is now one of the most frequent reasons kids are teased or bullied.” One of her studies followed more than a thousand teenagers into their early thirties, and found that children who were bullied because of weight were correlated with binge eating, poor body image, and eating to cope with emotions (not to mention other eating disorders). These correlations, in turn, were linked to obesity in adulthood as well. The effect was present for men and women, but more pronounced for women.

 

Dr. Puhl says that healthcare professionals might be some of the few allies overweight children and teenagers can have. After all, they are most likely teased by family members as well as their peers. Another ally that comes to mind is teachers - where appropriate, they can intervene in a bullying situation, as well as promote body positivity and physical activity.

 

We can all be allies if we understand and recognize that making comments about a weight does not encourage positive change; instead, making comments about weight can result in negative, longterm impacts. It is important to make sure that children and teens have access to healthy, positive influences for their physical, mental, and emotional health.

Wearable Tech and Meaningful Changes in Health

Recently, our blog posts have discussed the role of technology in children’s lives today - specifically, smartphones and Internet safety. At CHIL, we’re also working with students to incorporate technology into their physical activity via our pedometer program.

 

“Wearable technology” like Fitbits and Apple Watches have exploded in popularity in recent years. Their popularity especially among students has inspired several extensive studies into the effectiveness of such devices for goals like weight loss. These studies have been published in influential publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggesting their importance and relevance today. Many of these studies showed mixed results in the effect of having a Fitbit-like device on weight loss over time.

 

But it’s important to remember that while weight loss is potentially an easy, objective measure for researchers, it is not the only potential health benefit that comes from tracking day-to-day activity. It’s also not the only goal that students should have for themselves. Simply tracking physical activity can be a huge help for those who need to increase their daily activity levels - and that applies to many of us, and to students as well. Despite the federal recommendation that teens get at least one hour of exercise (moderate or rigorous) each day, 2012 data showed that only one in four teens get that hour, according to an article recently published by NPR.  The  Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that nearly half of American youths aged 12-21 years are not vigorously active on a regular basis.

 

Another article in NPR weighs some of the factors that could influence the effectiveness of wearable technology for fitness or activity. For example, while meeting daily fitness goals and step counts (the popular “10K a day”) could really motivate one person, failing to meet the same goal could discourage another from continuing to wear the device altogether. Also, meeting a daily goal could actually cause a person to “reward” him/herself with more calories. How, then, can we make these gadgets more effective? According to Dr. Mitesh Patel, who was interviewed in the NPR article, these devices are basically most effective when the people using them are “already dedicated to tracking their fitness.” Beyond the initial cost of an expensive device, there has to be a motivator that continues after the novelty of the gadget wears off.


What does this mean for students who are using less-pricey tools like those in our pedometer programs? These students can probably derive most of their long-term motivation not from the promise of weight loss but from the support they get from their school, friends, and family to be more active. The CDC agrees, pointing out that “well designed school-based interventions” and “social support from family and friends” are key in increasing physical activity for all teens. Our pedometer program seeks to do just that. For more information about our pedometer program, please click here.