This guest post is by Freeman Michaels, www.servicetoself.com
Childhood obesity is a hot political topic these days – and that scares me. I just keep thinking about the last hot political crisis related to kids, the education crisis. Remembering the “No Child Left Behind” debacle concerns me. A few weeks ago President Obama talked about childhood obesity in his State of The Union Address. Last month, a special government task force came out with new guidelines and recommendations to combat childhood obesity. Finger pointing has already started on both sides of the political isle. I am afraid that we are headed down another slippery political slope that may truly make matters worse. In my opinion politicizing this issue will not do anything to change the trend – it is only when we personalize the issue that the tide will really begin to turn. This is NOT a childhood obesity crisis this is a FAMILY obesity crisis. Even thin parents, with thin children, must begin to look at their choices to determine what is healthy and what is unhealthy in their lives.
As a formerly obese person who works with adults struggling with weight issues, I have come to recognize that patterns of behavior around food are established in childhood. Based on my experience I have outlined five factors for parents to consider that effect eating patterns. I believe that addressing these five factors can help establish healthy habits for life.
Routine: Kids need to know what to expect. Children thrive when parents are consistent. Scheduled meals and snacks help develop patterns that support long term healthy eating habits. When parents are inconsistent about meal times, kids will unconsciously overeat because they are never sure when their next meal will come. Also, it is critical that parents stick to the routine themselves – if you have the unhealthy habit of “grazing” your kids will follow your lead and adopt this unhealthy trait.
Family Meals: The single most prevalent pattern that my overweight adult clients face is using food to cope with anxiety and stress. Calm and nurturing family mealtime is critical to the health and well-being of everyone in the family. Dinner is usually the most traditional family meal – but if you can also eat a relaxed breakfast as a family this can be beneficial. Again, routine and ritual are very important – it is so healthy for kids to know what to expect. Be sure that family meals are not distracted by television, video games, toys or reading material. Keep the conversation positive, and spend this important family time supporting and connecting to one another.
No Diets: If a child is struggling with weight DON’T put them on a diet – do whatever you can not to emphasize the “problem”. You must change the eating patterns and behavior of the entire family. This can be very tricky if one of your children is heavy while the other children in the family are thin. Work incrementally to make adjustments and focus on “health” – don’t make this about “sacrificing to help the overweight child”.
Balance: While I promote healthy eating, parents must be careful not to be too restrictive. Allowing a certain amount of unhealthy food may be very important to your children’s health. Kids who feel as if they are being deprived with likely sneak junk food and binge on unhealthy food whenever they are given the chance. Be sure, in moderation, to include some unhealthy foods in your children’s diet. Even letting kids overindulge is important for their natural learning process – for example, on Halloween my wife and I let the kids eat as much candy as they want, then allow them one piece a night after the holiday.
Focus on Fun: Whenever an adult client is choosing a physical activity the most important criteria is that it is fun. When an overweight client begrudgingly commits to going to the gym I know that the choice will not be sustainable. When choosing and promoting physical activity for your family the same principle applies – it must be fun. Be aware of the often unconscious pattern of choosing competitive games that end up being “no fun”. Many of my overweight clients report associating physical activity with competitive sports where they felt as if they failed. Even if your children are “good” at competitive sports, be sure that they experience regular non-competitive physical activity. Also, I recommend doing active things as a family – such as bike riding, hiking, swimming, or flying kites.
Fulfillment: So many of my adult obese clients use food to cope with stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness, sadness, and grief. They are trying to “fill up” a void in their lives. From my perspective, there is one critical question, the answer to which I believe will lead them out of their negative patterns of behavior with food: What really feeds you? So many of us in this country have gotten distracted by the images of success and beauty that we see projected on the TV screens, billboards, and magazines. We have been taught to try and fill ourselves from outside rather than from inside. The biggest gift that you can give your children (and yourself) is love. Teach your children to love themselves no matter what size they are, no matter how much money they have, regardless of whether they fit in with the “cool crowd”. When a child gets love and encouragement, when they feel successful and supported, they will be far less likely to turn to food as a “filler”.
In Chinese there are two characters that are used to represent the word “crisis” – by itself the first character stands for “danger” while the second character stands for “opportunity”. I believe we have a wonderful opportunity with this obesity crisis to regain our perspective of what really matters. I don’t believe that this is simply a health crisis – I believe this is much more than that. This is a family crisis, an emotional crisis and even a spiritual crisis. No political slogan or government program is going to fix what is broken – this is an inside job. When people personalize this issue and really take responsibility for the choices that they are making, we will see this trend begin to change.