A heavy discussion: how to talk to your kids about their weight

It's not easy, but when it comes to talking to your kids about maintaining a healthy weight, it helps to talk about what foods or activities they can add in, rather than what they shouldn’t eat or do.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

In my household, fat is a four-letter word. I banned it back when my two daughters were toddlers in an attempt to nurture a positive body image, and as they enter their tween years, I’m redoubling my efforts. In my ideal scenario, my girls would be active because it feels good, they’d eat only when hungry and love their bodies for what they can do rather than what they look like. To say that it’s easier said than done is a massive understatement.

It’s hard to nurture good habits when there’s Pottermore and Pokemon Go, Sour Patch Kids and Sour Cream Glazed. In Canada, the rates of obesity have nearly tripled in the last three decades. And if you’re overweight as a kid, it’s really hard to outgrow it in adolescence.

So what’s the best way to broach the topic about maintaining a healthy weight?

To get tips and perspective on the topic (and some reassurance I wasn’t totally screwing up my kids), I talked to Amy McPherson, who works with kids and families at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital to help them develop better lifestyle habits.

Weight can be difficult to talk about—I don’t want to pass on my own body image baggage onto my kids.
In this culture, weight is equated with a kind of negative quality about the person. But it’s crucial to start talking about it from an early age in terms health rather than focusing on the number on the scale.

How should we talk about it?
I’m constantly wrestling with that question; it’s something quite of bit of my research is on. I would go back to growth and health—if you’re not able to move as you want to because you have excess weight, let’s talk about how we can get you to move actively. Maybe that can be motivation for the child to work on some weight management—so that they can do what they want to do. So take a very fact-based approach, but be very positive with the child so that they feel supported.

And then you actually have to demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle is important. Embed it into everyday life—so it becomes a normal thing that you move your body and you eat healthy foods most of the time.

So that way it’s not an individual’s responsibility—but something the whole family takes on.
It puts an unbearable pressure on children if they’re told that they’re the one that has to change without any support in the family. It doesn’t work to have a health care professional saying you need to do this, here’s your food guide, now go figure it out. It’s about asking what changes you can incorporate into your family.

How can these issues become amplified if there is a disability?
The most obvious one is when the child can’t be physically active in the traditional sense because they have mobility issues, but there are a number of other things. There are some conditions that affect people’s food preferences. With spina bifida there’s actually a physiological aspect to it that also affects a child’s ability to tolerate taste and textures, so they very often have a very limited repertoire of food. There are a number of multi-layered reasons that might actually affect their food intake. It’s hard to get your kid to eat healthy food at the best of times—to work with these other issues can be quite challenging. We try to empower all children to exert control in their life where they can. It might be as simple as going grocery shopping once a week to pick up new fruit that they’re never tried before. Or trying to involve kids more in the meal preparation, so they have the skills as they get older.

Does it help to focusing on what you can add to your diet, rather than focusing on what you shouldn’t have?
Absolutely. When you start to demonize one thing, you’ll start obsessing about it. And it’s not realistic to say, we aren’t every going to have any pop or chips. It needs to be a collaboration. For instance, ask them ‘What is one switch you can do?’ None of us respond well to being told what to do.

Read More:
Childhood obesity: Sizing up our kids
5 tips to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight
6 hearty-but-healthy recipes for weeknight dinners

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