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Preventing Childhood Weight Problems

  • Linda Mintle, Ph.D. Contributor
  • Published Dec 02, 2005
Preventing Childhood Weight Problems

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20

Does it seem like there are more overweight kids in America than in years past? If you said, "Yes" you’ve accurately noticed a new trend. Childhood obesity is now considered an epidemic in America. As a result, more parents are concerned about the health of their children and the emotional damage that is often inflicted on overweight children. Obesity is a medical problem with long-term consequences, but it's people that add the additional strain of psychological burdens associated with it. Often, the pain of being an overweight kid involves self-hatred that can lead to depression and anxiety, social isolation and alienation.

A child struggling with weight issues has to face an unsympathetic world -- one steeped in the idolatry of the body, glamorizing thinness at all costs. "Thin is in" and the pressure to conform is enormous. We as parents – especially moms -- know all too well the battle to overcome pressure to look just a little prettier or thinner. When your body doesn't measure up, the reminders are everywhere. Just think of what this same culture does to our more vulnerable kids, especially kids struggling with weight gain.

You may be wondering why, in this beauty-obsessed world, we have an epidemic of kids gaining too much weight. What is so different in this generation from generations past? There are several reasons: Overweight kids tend to eat larger portions of food and eat high calorie items with high fat content; they watch more TV, play more video games and spend more time sitting in front of screens; they eat from stress and emotional issues; they move less; they tend to come from families in which there is an overweight adult. And we can’t count out the fact that we now live in a society saturated by consumerism and materialism where "more" and "excess" is celebrated -- it's incredibly hard for us not to indulge.

Getting to the Root of a Child’s Problem

Today we’ll focus in on two of the least discussed – but highly important -- reasons for kids overeating: stress and emotional difficulties. These reasons can be tied to many of the reasons above and could very well be the root of a child’s problem. Kids, like adults, can medicate life stress and difficulties with food. Food serves to temporarily numb out problems or bad feelings and provides immediate gratification. As food is used to cope with stress or negative feelings, weight gain results and can lead to feelings of self-hate and teasing. The cycle spirals downward as your child eats even more to numb the physical and emotional pain of being overweight.

So what can you do to help a child deal with her feelings of self-hate and the reactions of people around her? First ask this question, "Is my child overeating for emotional reasons?" If you think this could be the case, deal with major stressors that are present in your child’s life that contribute to his emotional vulnerability. Is your child going through a difficult time due to your divorce? Are you critical of your child's appearance, making verbal digs at weight and eating? Do you constantly talk about dieting? Has there been abuse or trauma such as molestation or a death in the family? All of these factors play major roles in a child’s physical and spiritual health. Get proper counseling to begin dealing with the big issues impacting your family.

Finding Solutions

Once you’ve identified major family issues and worked to resolve them, consider four other main areas of your child's life that could be connected with unhealthy eating: 1) How does your child fit in socially? Is she anxious, uncomfortable and avoiding others? 2) Are there ample opportunities to overeat? 3) Does your child think negative thoughts about herself? Does she verbalize regular put downs and talk about her imperfect body? 4) Is she reacting to physical discomfort by eating? Is she eating to relieve headaches or to cope with feeling tired? Has she had a chronic illness and is now using food to comfort?
After considering the cause, consider these 20 guidelines to help your child eat healthy, move more and develop a healthy appreciation for the body God gave him or her:

1) Respect your child's appetite if she is full. Don't make her eat everything on her plate, or eat it all in order to have dessert.

2) Model good eating habits. Children do what they see more often than what they are told.

3) Re-evaluate the fat intake in your home. Cut down on high fat foods.

4) Stock your home with healthy, nutritious snacks versus junk food.

5) Don't dictate which foods to eat. Instead guide your kids’ choices.

6) Encourage slow eating, chewing food and conversation between bites. Make mealtimes a positive experience.

7) Eat meals together. So many American families don't take the time to eat together. When they do, it's hurried and stressful. Slow down and gather at the table.

8) Teach nutrition and meal preparation while shopping.

9) Have regular eating times and snack times. No skipping meals. That's a set-up for overeating.

10) Don't use food as a reward or punisher.

11) If your child is over age two, use skim instead of whole milk.

12) Limit TV and other uses of screens (computers, games). Encourage active play.

13) Exercise. Do it with your kids and make it fun. Take them to the pool to swim or outside to throw a ball.

14) Eat at the table or designated area. Eating should not be in front of TV or on the run in the car.

15) Substitute water for soda.

16) Never say "diet" to your child.

17) Be firm about good nutrition.

18) Don't call your children names or make negative comments about their bodies.

19) Don't single your child out at the table or in public concerning food. Take her aside and review food choices.

20) Encourage and arrange physical activities. Don't become so busy, you forget this role.

Pay attention to your child’s emotional states, mood shifts, negative self-comments and how she tries to handle the pressures of her world. In short, know your child. Stop your busy schedule and pay attention to what she feels and thinks. It's your job to impart a healthy self-esteem and body acceptance -- begin early.

Finally, check your own attitudes about body image and weight. Do you obsess over your imperfections or define yourself by appearance? Do you have a strong sense of self based on God's Word and calling in your life? Are you a healthy role model when it comes to handling difficult emotions and relationships? Whatever your struggles, get the help you may need to have a healthy view of your life and body. The better you feel about your body and weight, the better you’ll communicate that to your kids. And that’s a gift we all can give our children.

Dr. Mintle, a licensed clinical social worker, is the author of the new book, Overweight Kids published by Integrity (2005). She can be seen regularly on ABC Family's morning television talk show, Living the Life, and hosts her own website at