UAB internists and pediatricians offer tips on how parents can discuss weight with their children, as well as promote healthy living within their families.

1204300737340534.g87QcSQbeSyjLqtnPeNl Height640UAB internists and pediatricians offer tips on how parents can discuss weight with their children, as well as promote healthy living within their families.Childhood obesity has increased dramatically in the past few years, affecting approximately 14.7 million children and adolescents. Research shows that about 40 percent of overweight girls and 37 percent of overweight boys are teased by family members and peers about their weight. Weight teasing not only increases the risk of weight gain, but also binge eating and excessive weight control measures that can lead to eating disorders.

With the increased health risks associated with both obesity and eating disorders, how can parents promote a healthy lifestyle to their children without encouraging unhealthy behaviors?

Channing Brown, MD, an internist and pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Children’s of Alabama, discusses how parents can deal with weight-related situations with children and teens.

Reduce weight stigma

Weight stigma alone can increase the risk of developing obesity or an eating disorder. Children usually develop weight stigma from their family members or physicians.

“Parents assume their children’s negative weight stigmas come from external influences such as social media or pop culture,” Brown said. “Even if they don’t discuss their child’s weight directly with them, negative comments about a parent’s weight or the weight of others have a significant impact on a child’s weight perception.”

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Graphic: Jodie Potter
Brown urged parents to use weight-neutral or health-promoting language. The language avoids commenting on anyone’s body, including the parent’s own body. It moves away from labeling foods as “good or bad” and instead focuses on the nutritional value or health benefits of a food.

Brown encourages parents and physicians to reiterate that everyone is born with a unique body, and while body mass index can correlate with health outcomes, it’s not always the best indicator of health.

Take a holistic approach to health

Recent studies reflect the complexity of obesity and new guidelines have moved from “watchful waiting” to comprehensive action plans. Brown encourages families to develop a holistic plan to promote healthy living within their family

“Obesity and eating disorders are complex problems, and a child’s environment and family play a huge role,” Brown said. “These are not quick-fix, one-fix conditions, so it’s important for families to create goals that consider the bigger picture of their child’s life.”

Parents should first take the time to understand the stressors in their child’s life. These can be interpersonal family stressors, such as divorce, financial problems, addiction, or environmental factors in school and social life, such as bullying or relationship problems. If there are stressors that seem to trigger unhealthy habits, parents can work with counselors, pediatricians, teachers, and others to reduce them.

The next step, Brown says, is to set realistic health goals for the whole family. Studies show that parents modeling healthy behaviors, such as eating vegetables at family meals, set positive examples for their children to follow. This also includes modeling non-diet-related behaviors, such as exercise. Encouraging children to walk, play a favorite sport, dance or even do yard work together are great opportunities to incorporate movement into their routine while spending time together as a family.

Click image to enlarge.
Graphic by: Jodi Potter
While eating habits are not the only contributors to the risk of obesity or eating disorders, they are an important component of overall health. Brown says to avoid going on a “family diet” because diet is a major risk factor for obesity and eating disorders. Instead, he recommends implementing the 5-2-1-0+ rule to meet daily health goals.

“Try to eat five servings of fruit or vegetables a day, get two hours or less of screen time, exercise an hour a day in a healthy way, drink zero-sugar drinks and aim for nine hours or more of sleep a night. ” Brown said.

Seek professional help

Children and adolescents’ weight fluctuates over the years, so parents should watch for large changes in their child’s weight. Sudden changes in weight are often indicators of potential health problems and a sign to talk to a doctor. Brown reminds parents to avoid expressing their concerns about their child’s weight in front of the child.

If clinical intervention is needed, Brown urges parents to see a specialist who is experienced in pediatric weight loss or a center that focuses on interdisciplinary weight loss or eating disorder treatment.

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