Registered nutritionist Nicola Jackson looks at the thorny issue of child obesity and the best ways to broach the topic of healthy eating with young people.
Q Childhood obesity is a big issue these days and I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to talk to my kids about weight management now, to avoid problems further down the track. Or could that cause unintended problems? My kids are not overweight but they do like treats, like most kids, more than their vegetables. How should I approach the topic?
A Childhood obesity and the education system have been in the news lately with the recent (and perhaps controversial) appointment of low-carb, high-fat advocate Grant Schofield as the Ministry of Education’s first Chief Education Health and Nutrition Advisor. While it’s great to see the Government increasing its focus on nutrition, I believe we need to consider carefully how we approach the issue, to avoid inadvertently causing other problems.
There’s no doubt that childhood obesity has increased rapidly over the past decade and there has also been an increase in health conditions previously only seen in adulthood. Yes, we need to encourage, support and educate our children and adolescents to eat healthy and keep active. However, we need to drop the focus on obesity and weight when we talk to our children and young people, both at school and home. A focus on weight is not helpful, and can even be harmful.
- You might think that talking about weight would motivate change to healthier habits and increased activity levels. But discussions about weight don’t help with weight reduction. In fact, they can even be harmful, promoting disordered eating behaviours. One study found that parents who talked about weight had teens who were much more likely to binge eat, use unhealthy weight control measures and go on diets. However, if the focus was on healthy eating without reference to weight, these unhealthy behaviours were less likely.
- When children learn that a slim body is ideal and a larger one is not, it creates poor body image. Imagine being a child with a larger body with all the talk around harms of eating too much and being fat. If someone has ever made a comment about your weight, you know how hurtful it is, and how self-conscious it can make you feel. Feeling bad about our bodies simply creates more problems. It generally causes negative changes rather than positive. Studies have found it’s related to unhealthy weight control behaviours for boys and girls, decreased levels of physical activity in girls and binge eating in boys.
We also need to be careful in how we talk to our children about healthy eating. We need to promote a balanced approach and avoid demonising foods, so children learn that things like chocolate is a treat to be enjoyed sometimes, not something that is ‘bad for them’. A black and white mentality around food can cause binge eating, food guilt and other unhealthy food behaviours.
We can teach our children a balanced approach to healthy eating; promote positive body image and movement they enjoy. We can work at creating healthy environments for them to grow up in. At the end of the day, we all want our children to be healthy and happy – and a focus on health without weight can be a part of achieving that.