By Cathy Monaghan RD MINDI Paediatric Dietitian.

 

I’m a little later than planned but March 4th was World Obesity Day. A recent prediction is that almost 400 million children around the world will be living with obesity by 2035, that’s 100% more than in 2020.

 

I don’t talk about ‘obesity’ often. But, I have been contacted by a lot of parents looking for help for their overweight child or a child ‘above a healthy weight’ as I prefer to say. I also happened to be in a fast food/ garage forecourt as a nearby secondary school closed recently. I sat and watched the young teens descend upon the shop & couldn’t help but wonder ‘what the hell?!’

 

How children relate to food and their bodies is relevant to all of us. Health is not one body shape or size, healthy eating is not one thing. ‘Health’ is a myriad of things. This video ‘Poodle Science’ helps keep perspective on why ‘a healthy weight’ is different for everyone. 

 

Obesity is most often talked about in a negative way which reinforces stereotypes, simplifies the causes and contributes to weight stigma. ‘Fat’ is considered a derogatory term. If your child is above a healthy weight they are likely already well aware. Highlighting the issue is unlikely to help. Making a child (or anyone) feel bad about themselves in any area of life rarely leads to progress. If a child struggles with reading or maths, we don’t draw attention to their struggles in the hope of making improvements, we acknowledge the positives and build up their confidence. 

There are many misconceptions about obesity – like the idea that obesity is the fault of the individual. People living in larger bodies often blame themselves. Again, the poodle science video helps put this in perspective. 

Focusing on body shape and size, and weight management is not part of the solution but is in fact contributing to eating disorders and disordered eating. Do you know what the biggest predictor of weight gain is? It is actually going on a diet!!

Recent research from The University of Oxford stated that:

“the number of children reporting weight loss attempts is growing at a faster rate than the rise in excess weight.  Alarmingly, the data also showed that an increasing proportion of children with a ‘healthy’ weight also reported trying to lose weight. This raises concerns and suggests greater attention is needed to target weight control messages appropriately.” 

The solution lies in raising our families where each individual has:

  • their own best interests in mind, are happy in their own skin, regardless of any external factor 

  • that eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. 

  • that enjoy all food without shame, guilt, bingeing or deprivation.

  • that don’t live by should and shouldn’t or good and bad, but know ‘their’ balance for life – for food, physical activity, video games and sleep. 

  • that are aware when they feel off balance and know what to do to recalibrate themselves.

What happened in the garage?

The food choices in most service stations ( in Ireland anyway) has improved enormously over the years. As I sat munching on a delicious pitta pocket that ticked at least 5 veg offerings for the day I sat and watched a feeding frenzy unfold. I’m guessing these were first year students that have just been given a new sense of freedom/ autonomy since starting secondary school.

Their food choices were all processed, large packets of pringles, large bottles of coke, big tubs of ice cream, their arms struggling to juggle everything until they got to the till. It looked like a race to eat the most processed food in the shortest amount of time. I am guessing if any of them joined me in the pitta queue, they would have been ridiculed for their choices. 

I could talk about their body sizes and shapes but that is not the problem, that is actually the result of the problem. 

We are all born intuitive eaters but as a result of diet culture, shoulds and shouldn’ts and growing up with a language of deprivation ‘eat your veggies and you can have dessert’, we have actually placed less desirable foods on a higher pedestal than the foods we were trying to encourage. The problem that we were trying to solve has actually been made worse. These kids were obviously starving after a day of school. It is fair to say that they were no longer intuitive eaters. They had money and freedom, they were going for all the foods that had been controlled for years. 

Yes, companies need to be made to produce better food, less processed, less refined sugar, smaller portions. We are nowhere near that happening so even if it does, maybe things will have changed by the time our grandchildren are queuing for sweets! Realistically this garage had a great selection of food so the options were available to these teenagers so that is not the issue. I could go and talk to these kids about their food choices, the salt and sugar content etc but they know all that already so that is not the issue either.

So, how can we help prevent childhood obesity?

We can help our kids by learning more about intuitive eating, by becoming weight neutral and by thinking about the language that we use at home around food and feeding. By demonstrating self care ourselves in whatever way is realistic for whatever stage we are at with work, kids, life in general! 

Tips for raising a child that is in tune with their own best interests?

  1. Understand your relationship with food, are you an intuitive eater? Take my quiz here.

  2. Understand your food parenting style – are you authoritative or authoritarian?

  3. Learn more about the division of responsibility of feeding, understand your role in food parenting.

We are here to help if you would like to discuss any of these issues further. All our courses and 1:1’s focus on intuitive eating and raising intuitive eaters. 

If your child is above a healthy weight and you would like a 1:1 consultation we often encourage you to attend the appointment without your child. In most cases your child does not need to know about the appointment. Instead we will support you to support your child at home with subtle but proven strategies without unnecessary pressure, control or guilt.

Recommended Reading:

I have put a reading list together here that can help us raise our kids to be intune with their own needs. 

I would love to know your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below.

References and Further Resources:

  1. Weight Bias in Healthcare: https://youtu.be/lZLzHFgE0AQ

  2. https://www.ucd.ie/issda/data/growingupinirelandgui/

  3. https://www.safefood.net/healthy-eating#OneToFour

  4. https://www.hse.ie/eng/about/who/healthwellbeing/our-priority-programmes/heal/food-pyramid-images/food-pyramid-simple-version.pdf

  5. https://childhoodobesity.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/COE-2-192901-8-Healthy-Habits-infographic-update_PRESS.pdf

  6. https://www.phc.ox.ac.uk/news/more-children-aged-8-17-trying-to-lose-weight-than-a-decade-ago-including-children-of-a-healthy-weight