Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Prevent Child Obesity: Simple, Surprising Research

To prevent disordered eating, schools and parents must work together

Ah, the week after the holiday feast and we all head to the gym with good intentions. We may also be thinking about obesity and other forms of disordered eating among our children who also likely binged over the holidays on an endless parade of sweets, eggnog and turkey stuffing. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about interventions to prevent obesity among young people. Some of what I’ve been reading has surprised me.

First, programs that preach appropriate calorie intake or healthy lifestyle choices can sometimes have the undesired effect of making adolescents self-conscious about any weight gain at all. One can almost see the chasm growing between children who over-eat and those who are starving themselves into caricatures of supermodels. Recent surveys of girls as young as grade six report up to one third being on a diet or feeling like they should lose weight.

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Second, despite the confidence I had in my children’s school to take a dent out of this problem, research is showing that if we leave it up to our children’s schools to teach students about healthy eating and exercise, we are setting our kids up for failure.

So what works? Results from great interventions like Project EAT are showing that it takes a village of concerned adults to create a culture shift away from dieting and drastic weight loss to a climate of healthy eating, normal amounts of daily activity, and the psychological wellbeing to like your body no matter what its shape. The growing problem of obesity is not going to go away because a child’s school offers extra gym classes or changes the cafeteria food. There are too many reasons for over-eating, ranging from advertising on television to infrequent sit down dinners at home and the ease of access to pop and juice. Limiting caloric intake isn’t even half the answer either. Nor is our mania to exercise. Few of our children will ever have the opportunity daily to burn off excess calories nor the supports required to keep up a fitness routine even if it gets established.

Instead, we need to think about this systemically. By that I mean we need to think of all the parts of the puzzle at once. A program at school that promotes healthy eating does little or nothing unless parents make changes at home. If we think about helping children be more resilient and resist the pull towards obesity then we need to think about how we adults make it more likely they succeed. Kids go home and make up the calories they don’t have at school unless parents match their children’s schools stride for stride, purging their pantries of deep fried and sugary calories. In fact, we might consider spending at least half of our educational dollars that we smother on kids and healthy eating and redirect those resources towards changing the behaviors of parents. How about information evenings, phone check-ins, and other creative ways of sharing curriculum with parents?

But what should we tell parents? Reduce calories? Increase exercise? Both? No surprise, it does take both to fight obesity, though exercise is often easier than we think. While aerobic exercise certainly is helpful to a child’s overall fitness, it is often the walking to school and the unstructured play periods where real health is achieved and a healthy weight held constant. Before you drive your child to school, or worse, the bus stop, consider whether you are providing your child with the guidance he needs to develop a healthy lifestyle.

Likewise, a few changes at home can go a long way to decreasing a child’s caloric intake. I’m always amazed at my local pool when parents buy their child Gatorade after the child just spent two hours swimming. As with so many aspects of our children’s lives, we have more control than we acknowledge. Water anyone? Maybe milk? Could we get back in the van and home before our children pester us to death and are fed a bag of chips? I’ve had the same experience as everyone else trying to control nagging kids in the back of the car, but I know that some short-term pain makes for long-term gain. Modelling healthy lifestyles starts with us adults. If we’re upset with our children’s eating habits, we have to ask who is buying all the empty calories our children are consuming.

The pattern goes further, and in this regard, the research is pretty clear. Turn off the television when eating. Sit down with your kids a few times a week for a home cooked dinner. Encourage children to make good healthy choices. It’s remarkable how we can influence their behavior. Model a lifestyle that we want our kids to imitate.

The research is easy to digest. It all points to incremental changes in lifestyle and human interaction as the most effective tools for weight control, exercise and healthy eating. If you want to read an excellent summary, take a look at a report from the Canadian Association for School Health on Obesity Prevention. Similar documents have made the exact same points. This problem can’t be solved by any one intervention, and certainly not by changes at school alone.

Thankfully, the turkey leftovers are finally finished at my house. Now there’s all that nasty chocolate to eat. Oh well…a nibble or two won’t hurt. But I’m walking to the grocery store later and dragging my kids along with me.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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