Childhood obesity is a significant health problem in the United States. It’s more and more common, and it has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This subject is often a difficult one to talk about. Many people think of obesity as something that diminishes a person’s attractiveness or reflects negatively on their character. None of that is true. But childhood obesity does carry very real health risks. Among these, it has been linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which are known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which can cause a heart attack or stroke later in life.
Obesity is also more prevalent among people of lower socioeconomic status and color communities for many reasons, especially inadequate access to nutritious meals, a disproportionate number of fast food / convenience stores, and targeted advertising of processed food.
If you’re a parent who’s concerned about your child’s weight, this territory can be very hard to navigate. It’s very easy to do more harm than good. However, I have some tips on approaching this challenge in a constructive, healthy way.
1. Let’s Change How We Think and Talk About People’s Weight
Saying someone “is obese” makes obesity part of their identity. It’s hard to overcome a health problem when you believe it’s part of who you are.
Instead, the Obesity Action Coalition recommends that we think of obesity as something that someone has. Try saying: “My child is affected by obesity,”Instead of,“ my child is obese. ” This shift can help remove the stigma from this health issue… in your own mind and your child’s.
Also, it’s much healthier for you and your child to focus on what their bodies can and cannot do instead of how they look.
2. Make Their Doctor Part of the Conversation
You and your child may not be the best judges of whether their weight is healthy, much less what to do if it’s not. Please get a professional medical opinion on this topic from your child’s pediatrician.
3. Tune Into Your Child’s Emotional State
Many children face significant pressure – from their peers, social media, TV, and other sources – to look a certain way. And if they do not conform to that ideal, they may really be struggling emotionally.
Weight issues and emotional problems often go hand in hand. Being depressed or anxious can lead to unhealthy eating patterns, and being overweight can undermine a child’s self-esteem. So do not just focus on your child’s weight. Consider their overall behavioral and emotional health.
4. Make Healthy Changes in Your Fridge and Pantry
Try to limit the supply of processed foods and “junk food” in your home. Instead, make sure there are plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables at hand, and try to make these the go-to snack items in your household. (And at school!)
Some areas are “food deserts” where fresh produce is hard to come by. However, many local churches and community centers distribute produce at no cost. Find food distribution sites in Philadelphia.
5. Consider Growing Your Own Produce
Whether or not the stores in your neighborhood offer healthy produce, growing vegetables with your kids can help them feel more connected to the foods they eat. It’s a fun activity you can do together as a family.
Even if you do not have a garden, you can grow some vegetables indoors in pots, like lettuce and carrots. There are also many opportunities to participate in community gardens and a number of actual farms within the city of Philadelphia that you and your child might enjoy visiting or even volunteering with.
6. Promote Good Hydration
Most Americans do not tend to drink enough fluids, and sometimes what feels like hunger may actually be thirst! Encourage your child to drink lots of water. And remember, water is a much better beverage choice than high-calorie juices and soft drinks. Adding some fresh lemon juice, cucumber, or strawberries can make water more flavorful.
7. Get Technology on Your Side
A lot of kids today aren’t getting enough exercise, and spending too much time sitting can increase their likelihood of being overweight or obese. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting healthy limits for screen time, but families can get creative with screens to encourage activity. These days there are lots of apps and video games designed to get kids moving instead of keeping them sitting in one place.
8. Tackle Physical Activity Together
Doing physically active things as a family is good for all of you. Find activities that you’d all enjoy, whether walking, hiking, playing basketball, or swimming, and make them a regular part of your family time.
It’s especially valuable to spend time outside, and there are plenty of green spaces to enjoy in the greater Philadelphia region. Exposure to nature not only gets everyone moving but also can benefit your family members’ mental health.
9. Do not Skimp on Sleep
Lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain, and insufficient sleep is very common among children of all ages.
It’s not always easy to get kids to change their sleep habits, but it’s very important – not only to their weight but also to their overall physical and emotional health.
10. Beware of Eating Disorders
Remember point # 2 above? You and your child may not be the best judges of what’s healthy or have the healthiest ways of talking and thinking about weight. And while excess weight can be unhealthy, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can be even more devastating – and harder to overcome.
Be careful how you talk to your child about their weight and their eating habits. Listen carefully to what your child says about these things. And, as always, talk to their doctor.
Please, please follow their doctor’s advice, and try to intervene before any potential eating disorders become worse.
Where to Get Support
If your child needs help, please get them behavioral and emotional support. If you’re an Independence Blue Cross member, your health plan has a lot of resources for this, and our Provider Finder tool at ibx.com can help you locate an appropriate specialist.