It is a routine afternoon seeing patients. A mom comes in with her teenage girl, concerned about her daughter’s weight and asks how she can help her become healthier. The mom says she cooks a separate meal for the kids and the parents eat dinner later. She makes sure to give her daughter more vegetables and less meat or carbs, but the girl has not lost any weight.
Her daughter has been sneaking food overnight and eating leftovers from her parents’ dinner or any snacks she can find. When I recommend removing junk food from their home so it’s not a temptation, I am taken aback by the mom’s response.
“Why should I get rid of her dad’s ice cream? He doesn’t have a problem with his weight!” She doesn’t seem to understand why the entire family should change its diet to help her daughter. She also doesn’t see that it will be healthier for the entire family in the long run.
About a week later, another mom comes in with her overweight daughter, again looking for weight-loss advice. This mom tells me, “I am concerned about my daughter. I notice that she seems to be taking after me in terms of her body shape and I don’t want her to have the same problems I have had with obesity.”
The girl’s mom recently underwent bariatric surgery and she was working hard to make healthy changes for the entire family. She had gotten rid of the soft drinks and juice in the house and was encouraging everyone to eat healthier. The entire family eats the same meals and sits together for dinner.
While both of these moms are concerned for their daughters’ well being, they have very different approaches toward implementing nutritional changes.
In the first family, it feels as though the girl is being punished for her obesity. She is singled out from the rest of the family, which feels it doesn’t have to “suffer” because of her weight. In the other family, everyone has adopted a healthier lifestyle, regardless of their size. Nobody is made to feel bad because of being obese; instead the focus is on maintaining healthy nutritional habits for everyone.
These two cases reminded me how important it is to help overweight or obese children in the most supportive manner. Research has shown that one of the best ways to encourage a healthy lifestyle – and therefore a healthy weight – in children is to get the entire family involved. When you sit at meals as a family and make the same healthy choices, the chances of improving obesity significantly increase.
On the other hand, when you single out children because of their weight or tease or berate them, this not only lowers the chances of improving their obesity, but it actually may lead to the development of eating disorders. Many teens with eating disorders start as overweight children who were made to feel ashamed about their weight. They then obsess over their body image, which easily can lead to disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
So what’s the best thing you can do for your child, regardless of his or her shape and size? Eat together as a family, and make healthy lifestyle changes, including exercise, as a family. Prepare meals together, and let your child see how enjoyable and rewarding it can be to make healthy choices. Don’t place blame or treat nutrition as a punishment for obesity. Provide support for your child, encouraging him or her to model your healthy habits, thus establishing a family-wide standard for healthy living.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatrics for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.