This is Part 1 of the blog series: Looking at Childhood Obesity through a Different Lens. Here, I take a different look at child weight problems, uncovering fundamental issues that deserve more attention.
To succeed or excel, sometimes we have to dig into and cut away the beliefs that hinder progress. I believe there are tenets about childhood obesity that get in the way of progress. Beliefs and widely held truths that need to be re-examined. Here’s my take:
Childhood Obesity is a Food Problem. We all know that childhood obesity is complex. We know that it involves genetics, activity level, socioeconomic status and more. But we continue to look to food as the solution. Fix the food, and we’ll fix kids and their weight. We’re lured by ‘eat this, not that’ or ‘eat right’ or the latest diet plan, all of which emphasize something is wrong with our food. The problem with this is that the right food on the plate doesn’t guarantee a healthy weight. Food is not that powerful–certainly not powerful enough to solve childhood obesity. Because food is just part of the problem, it can only be part of the solution.
Larger Children Get Plenty of Nutrition. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, children and teens, whether overweight or not, are deficient in a host of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium. When children eat nutritionally bankrupt foods, they naturally crowd out the nutrient-rich foods they need for growth and development. Worst of all, if perpetuated over time, unhealthy eating patterns can translate to nutrient deficiencies and adult-friendly diseases such as osteoporosis.
Heavy Children Can’t Be Hungry. I’ve heard this question many times, “How can this (heavier) child be hungry?” When children eat nutritionally devoid foods or skip meals, hunger can get out of control. For instance, the overweight teen trying to cut back on calories may skip breakfast (or under-eat) and “diet” at lunch, only to return home after school “starving.” Or consider the child who frequently eats processed food and who’s “never satisfied.” We know in these situations, overeating is more likely to occur because of hunger. I believe hunger can be managed for all children with regularly timed meals and snacks, nutrient-rich foods, wide variety and eye-appeal.
Bigger Kids Eat Too Much. Younger overweight kids do appear to eat more calories, according to a recent study in Pediatrics. However, overweight children and teens ate less than their normal weight counterparts. Researchers hypothesized that the level of physical activity in older kids had a greater influence on their weight. Weight status isn’t always a function of what kids eat. Modeling proper portion sizes for age and being active are key elements to a healthy weight, but a host of other factors are involved.
Certain Foods Are to Blame. Foods like chocolate milk, soda, candy and sweets are pinpointed as evildoers. Yes, these foods contribute to overall calorie intake, potentially promoting excess weight gain. But, no singular food is the reason for a child’s weight. Rather, the big picture, including eating patterns, food choice, and exercise, are to blame. If you’re hung up on one food, broaden the lens and take a look at everything.
Children Cannot Manage Their Hunger. All children are born with an inherent ability to manage their appetite. However, over time, this intuition can be lost due to the types of foods offered, how they’re offered, and outside pressures to eat more or certain things. To help children maintain or regain appetite regulation, build awareness with language. Toddlers can use ‘happy belly’ for satisfaction and ‘hungry belly’ for hunger. Older children or teens can further practice recognition of appetite signals by asking themselves if they are truly hungry, or using the Fruit and Veggie test (more on that in a later blog post).
Kids Can’t Be Trusted Around Food. Some larger children appear to be out of control with their eating—this may be true, but often, I have found that it has to do with meal structure, content and feeding practices. For example, if parents eliminate all sweets from the home (restrictive feeding practice) in an effort to minimize eating these foods, children may become overly focused on them when they’re outside of the home and appear to be “obsessed.” Or, if children have been offered lots of sweets and snacks at an early age, they develop a strong taste preference for these foods, and want them more. Last, if meals and snacks are haphazard, kids can become over-hungry or even overly focused on food, and eat more as a result. Kids can be trusted around food, especially if it is nutritious, predictable, and guided in a pleasant environment.
How You Feed Isn’t Important. I believe how children are fed is as important as what they eat, especially to weight status. For example, using responsive feeding techniques throughout childhood is known to help kids eat better. Disconnecting, or being unresponsive, may negatively impact healthy eating, and weight. I’ll address this more in Part 2 of this series.
Chubby Little Ones will Thin Out. Chunking up and thinning out is a normal part of a toddler’s physical development. We used to be able to count on this tenet, but not now. Toddlers have an unprecedented exposure to energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. When they get these foods over and over, they may develop a strong preference for them. Add in normal toddler development such as budding independence and food refusal (and the occasional tantrum), and you’ve got a perfect storm for unhealthy eating.
Kids are Little Adults. If you follow the dieting world and all the gimmicks that proclaim fast and easy weight loss, you may be tempted to try these on your child. Stop and think about this: dieting is the fastest track to weight gain and disordered eating. Adult methods don’t work well for kids, so make sure if you are getting help, that the program or advice is coming from a qualified health professional trained in working with kids.
What beliefs do you hold about childhood weight problems? Are they getting in the way?