Diet and weight can be a delicate subject to discuss with your children, but with childhood obesity levels rising it’s more important than ever to know how to broach this minefield without causing your child distress, both in the short and long term.
A study conducted by Cornell Food & Brand Lab and published in Eating & Weight Disorders earlier this year showed that if you make regular remarks about your daughter’s weight or diet she is more likely to be unhappy with her body as a young woman.
The results of this study aren’t surprising given that when we are children we look to external sources for feedback and support. According to Dr Nida Hussain, clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, our first source of information from birth is our family, with the most influential people being our parents. “If a child grows up constantly being told that he or she needs to lose weight, imagine the impact this will have as he or she progresses through life and is bombarded with messages about what it means to be thin or beautiful,” she explains.
But this a day and age when obesity is a growing problem – particularly in the UAE where, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, obesity rates are double the global average.
So how can parents best monitor their children’s weight and encourage healthy eating habits without potentially damaging their psychological health?
Helen Williams, founder, director and trainer at the personal development centre LifeWorks in Dubai, explains that it’s important for adults to model, mirror and pattern the behaviours they would like their child to follow.
For the family to be living a holistic lifestyle, all members are responsible for taking part in regular healthy exercise, outdoor activities, sports and recreational fun.
“The child should not be singled out or made to feel different because of their body shape or size, but encouraged to participate in all the regular food and exercise choices that the whole family follows,” explains Williams. “The harm to children occurs when they are shamed or singled out as different and/or unacceptable.”
If your child needs to lose a bit of weight, Hussain says that the best way to tackle this is to promote physical activity without referencing weight loss. For example, if your child enjoys basketball she suggests saying things like “to be a basketball player you have to be able to run non-stop for at least 10 minutes. Let’s practise together and see if we can reach that goal by the end of the month”.
“You want the child to look forward to the physical activity, not dread it,” explains Hussain. “The best way to do that is to make it fun and model the behaviour you want him or her to have.”
Katrina Wilton, a 39-year-old Australian living in Dubai, has suffered with bulimia, so it is important to her that her two children, Liberty, 6, and Capri, 4, have a positive body image. “I encourage my children to eat well and exercise, but I tell them it’s to keep them healthy and strong. I occasionally explain that it’s not good to gain too much weight, but again, it’s about keeping the heart healthy,” Wilton says.
“Pictures in the media have always encouraged an unrealistic body expectation for children and teens, however, I think they are more exposed than ever because of iPads and social media. I also think we’ve become lazier and fast, processed food is so accessible that it becomes an easy option.”
Wilton says that it is the responsibility of parents to educate their children, build their self-esteem and encourage good eating and exercise habits.
“In the summer it can be a little challenging to maintain our exercise routine as it’s so hot outside, but we still go to the pool on most days. During the holidays we take the kids to Bounce or Adventure Zone as they’re mad climbers. If we’re stuck at home we’ll have a little dance party. During the cooler months they’re always outside riding their bikes, swimming, or we’ll go for a family walk. We sign up for fun runs such as the The Color Run and the kids love the sense of achievement from getting their medal. They do a weekly yoga class, too.”
Exercise helps to promote a healthy body image in children, so it is important to encourage physical activity from a young age; it creates high-level fitness, which enables them to feel alive, engaged and active. “Participating in group exercise helps children to experience belongingness, community and compassion for themselves and others,” explains Williams. “Teaching children to understand that their bodies need to move in order to be healthy, and encouraging this from early childhood through participation and parental modelling can be a very strong influence in building a strong positive body image, self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence,” she continues.
For children to adopt a positive attitude towards what they eat, early education on healthy eating is key and games, apps and books such asSam and the Sugar Bug are a great way to make health education fun. Hussain explains that even from the age of one, we can gear our children towards making healthier food choices – blueberries, bananas, strawberries, watermelon and most fruits will satisfy them just as much as candy bars if we start early.
“A child is not born knowing what a chocolate bar is. A child who is given healthy snacks is more likely to choose healthy alternatives as they grow older. They may still want the occasional treat, but overall their eating habits will be healthier,” she says.
As the child gets older, Hussain explains that he or she may develop guilt and shame for wanting unhealthy food choices such as pizza, so the focus should be on healthy foods and the benefits of eating them. “You want to model the behaviour you promote. If you make a smoothie every morning, let your child help. Later that evening you can comment on how the smoothie helped you to not feel tired, and explain how you should have vegetables every day to be strong – so you’ve given them the right message without it being a lecture,” she says.
It’s important for parents to educate themselves on healthy eating in order to transfer this knowledge to their children. Williams explains how in the UAE there are many groups, nutrition experts and classes that educate. “There is a wonderful organisation called Good Habits [www.goodhabitsuae.com], which has been educating people on food choices and portion sizes. It has been very influential in changing poor eating habits for many years,” she explains.