We need to tackle our childrens weight urgently… and carefully, says Amanda Ursell
Catching my eye this week a small survey conducted by WebMD and Stanford Health that claims parents find raising this subject of weight with adolescent offspring scarier than talking about drugs or even teen sex. It seems the issue of weight gain is up there with the birds and the bees, internet porn and perverts on Facebook for conversations we’d rather not have with our children, but it’s also up there with conversations you simply must have if you’re ever going to stake a claim in responsible parenthood.
Recent research published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior also revealed that when it comes to raising the problem of obesity with your kids, going in head on isn’t always the best answer. So first up, forget about the f-word, ‘fat’ has no place in this discussion. With adolescent bodies fuelled by raging hormones, the reaction to even, ‘Maybe you need to lose a few pounds dear?’ could be like lighting touch paper attached to a firework pointing at a gunpowder factory.
Anger, shame and low self-confidence are just a few of the emotions typically experienced by overweight children. Throw into the mix a potential history of unhappiness, bullying and guilt for overeating, plus all the usual teenage angsts of insecurity, a loathing of parents telling them what to do and a more than touchy reaction to any form of criticism, and you have a potent cocktail of feelings that could lead them to unleash all kinds of hell on you, themselves (I’m thinking eating disorders) and the wider family.
But we have to accept that more than one in three children in the UK is now overweight and we have to start talking about it.
So how do you tell your child they’re overweight? How do you begin that conversation? For inspiration I looked to my own teenage years.
When I was a teenager I hardly ever ate sweets. Not because I disliked them. I loved them. But after going through two years of ‘train track’ braces on my teeth, my mum pointed out that surely the last thing I wanted was for my newly straightened pearly whites to start falling out all over the place.
It was a logic I couldn’t dispute but mostly it was my teenage vanity that proved a powerful tool for cutting back on sweet treats and thus keeping my teeth and body more healthy.
Mum of course wasn’t just thinking of my smile, but also of my weight and she’d cottoned on to the perfect way to deter me from consuming vast quantities of sugar without bringing up my looks, lecturing me or appealing to reason – not the average teenager’s strong point.
Other parents could take a leaf out of my mum’s book and find imaginative ways of talking to their teenage offspring about issues surrounding diet, not least around the taboo issue of fatness.
My children are only three and four years old, so it’s not a dilemma I’ve had to face, but I’m fairly sure that though I would feel tempted to ‘have it out’, ban all pocket money, monitor every morsel that passed their lips, dump any form of treat from all the cupboard and start whipping up meals from a 1970’s Cranks cookery book, I’d actually try to take a different tack.
Experience tells me having been a nutritionist for the last 25 years and seen the brilliant health initiative MEND (standing for Mind Exercise, Nutrition, Do It) in action over the last decade, that the first step in tackling obesity and weight gain is to acknowledge it and accept that there is a problem.
As a parent the next step would be asking yourself honestly what was your role in the development of the problem? How can you help to make changes in your own life to start making eating well and moving more a normal part of everyday life for you, your wider family and of course, your overweight child?
Then, accept that you are going to have to ‘have the conversation’ in one form or another.
Personally, I would use my mum’s approach, mirrored by the MEND programme, and talk about wider health perspectives rather than weight.
For example, the importance of having a well balanced diet for strong immunity. This may mean nothing to a teenager in itself, but if you translate it into catching fewer colds and coughs so you ‘feel’ and ‘look’ better, it may resonate.
Or having a good mix of vegetables and fruits to boost vitamin C for great looking skin. Or plenty of calcium-rich foods because it’s during your teenage years that your bones grow to their full potential, and thus you grow to your full potential height.
Getting an interest in food going from these kinds of ‘left of field’ starting points can give teenagers the opportunity to start thinking about making changes to their diet, minus the pressure of talking about calories and grams of fat, which can send even the most well-adjusted person into a tailspin.
It could be just the ‘permission’ your child is secretly crying out for to begin the conversation with you. No matter how scary this topic is, it is worth facing up to it – not just for your child’s health and happiness but for your future too. Nobody wants to grow old watching their children suffer health problems that could have been avoided had they just opened up a few difficult lines of communication.