by Dr. Angela Clack~Childhood obesity is becoming a major problem in the US. Growing up as an overweight teen I know first -hand the impact of being teased and struggling with the emotional issues of being a girl in high school who could not wear the latest fashions because of my size. It only seemed to matter when I was around older peers and adults who were “just joking.” However, I grew up in the country where food was not an issue: we ate what we wanted, when we wanted, as much as we wanted. Yet my cousins and some of my friends were very athletic and involved in sports and for the most part were able to maintain a healthy weight I, on the other, was less active.
Why do I care? As a mental health practitioner who works to integrate emotional and physical wellness, I am very concerned about the youth I see in my practice and in the community who are overweight, who are using food as a comfort for sadness, anger, and other negative emotions and who are now being diagnosed with medical conditions like juvenile diabetes. Did you know that the prevalence of obesity in children and adolescents is increasing rapidly? (Obesity Research, Vol.12, Feb. 2004). In fact, the rates of obesity in America’s children and youth have tripled in the last quarter century and approximately 20 percent of our youth are now overweight with obesity rates in preschool age children increasing at alarming speed as noted at the American Psychological Association.
Briefly, the causes of obesity are varied and multi-systemic: genetic, metabolic, and environmental factors; social and cultural contexts and considerations which impact eating behaviors, diet, physical activity, and body image ideals; socioeconomic considerations: such as access to affordable healthy food and safe environments for physical activity. Have you ever noticed how many corner stores there are in inner cities compared to suburban and more rural areas? Well, guess what is sold in abundance and cheaply? Candy, chips, soda, and other high fat foods!
Children facing this type of health crisis are at risk for additional health complications such as diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, cancer, cardiovascular disease as well as additional psychological distresses such as social isolation, peer teasing, bullying and rejection, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and at worst suicidal thoughts. There is no evidence of a direct link between obesity and suicide; consequently, it is the last resort for some children that have not been able to adequately cope with the overwhelming stress.
What can families do to eliminate the disease of obesity? Change the focus and structure of your meal times. Nowadays, it seems everyone is engaged in some type of electronic device or watching TV instead of socializing and connecting with each other on a more intimate level.
Create a device free-electronic free meal time! Trust me; your children will survive for an hour without the phone or game attached to their fingertips.
Re-introduce your family to healthy foods and have them take part in meal preparation. There are plenty of foods that they can still enjoy that can be prepared in a healthier way. Make it a game, or competition for who can fix the best dish.
Buy healthier food. If it’s not in the house, they won’t have access to it. Please avoid locks on cabinets and refrigerator or hiding snacks-it’s just too tempting and is a sign of a greater problem.
Consider planting a small garden where children can see how healthy organic foods are for their bodies. When kids know better, they do better! Make food choice changes and activity level changes for the family as a whole life style change and not just for the child(ren) struggling with weight issues.
When should parents consider seeking professional help for the child’s disordered eating? If you have concerns about your child’s eating behaviors, seek an evaluation from your child’s pediatrician to have a comprehensive physical exam and blood work. If you and the pediatrician agree that it is a behavior that can be addressed purely with a change in diet and increase in physical activity, enroll your child in the appropriate programs (i.e. weight watchers (if age appropriate), summer T-ball and recreational sports). If, however, there are observations of a food addiction, have your child and family evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. A mental health professional can help the family find the appropriate counseling strategies to help your child overcome his/her food addiction and to develop healthy coping strategies for managing stress.
Hey, it’s summer! Let’s get our families outside and moving!