What Fat Women Want

Wanting to be thin is only part of the story

Further Thoughts on Living With an Overweight Teen

Focus on fun and food

Pediatric experts, I posted yesterday, are telling us that talking to our teenagers about their overweight may prod them to binge eat. I agreed with that—tell a teenager not to touch a hot stove and she will sit on it.

I’ve found that I can’t shake this topic of the overweight teenager. There are a number of addenda I would like to add to the tips I unearthed from my own experience yesterday.

The first is that I think talk of calories should be banned from any conversation about nutrition, and that nutrition is something that should be shared by the family and increasingly shifted to the shoulders of the child in the most desperate need of education. By this I mean that the whole family will benefit from eating whole foods, eschewing the highly processed junk that is part of the root of food addiction. While other family members may be able to have just one or exercise the calories off, those cheeze-whats-its are a weight gain or hypertension waiting to happen.

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I also recommend studying up on nutrition beyond the food pyramid. Look at foods that stoke the chain of serotonin and dopamine production, that promote satiety, and that limit cravings for hellcakes. Do this research with your teen—parcel out what produces tryptophan or what the highest fiber fruits are. Then go to a bookstore or Amazon and, together, look at cookbooks that will inspire you to make delicious, satisfying meals that are nutritional goldmines.

Salads are great when you’re in a hurry or it’s summer, but there’s a world of Moosewood, Indian, Mediterranean and vegetarian flavors to discover and share.

Then teach your child to cook. This will alleviate some of your household burden and it will bring the family together for meals. It’s also another chance for your teen to get vertical.

There is a long list of foods that are “safe” and that your child can have differing amounts of access to. Dump the idea of restriction in favor of substance. And remember that your teen burns calories the way we burn through money. If he snacks on hummus and rice cakes, the consequences will be different than if we do the same.

The last thing that’s been burning a hole in my brain is the idea of mentoring. If your child wants to learn to skateboard or play better basketball, consider going to his/her high school and asking one of the proficient players to teach your kid in the off-season. Or place a Craig’s List ad or paper advertisements near areas where kids engage in your child’s dream activities. What teen wouldn’t want to make ten or twenty bucks for an hour or two of doing what she or he does best?

Have a good talk with any near-in-age mentor you choose. Forbid teasing about weight or lack of skill and forbid discussing weight unless your kid brings it up. If your child does, in fact, want to talk about it with a peer-mentor, advise the coach to listen and ask questions rather than preach. And don’t ask for reports from the kid you hire. All you’ve done is provided an inline skate tutor and the relationship should be between them unless you get word of teasing or bullying. (My intuition tells me that a female peer-mentor may be more sensitive and empathetic toward your child’s awkwardness and diffidence—but it’s intuition, not fact. And remember that any activity that gets your child vertical is worth pursuing. You may be on the prowl for a knitting mentor or a stained glass coach. Anything that keeps food at bay is fair game.)

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than a third of American children, ages 6 – 19, were overweight or obese in 2010. This is everybody’s problem. School P.E. programs are losing funding right and left but that doesn’t mean the community can’t find creative ways around it. If you can find what is fun for kids, you can probably find a mentor and there is no reason this can’t be a community-wide resource sharing.

So much about being overweight as a teenager is about being excluded from the fun. There are too many dates missed, teams too vigorous for, costumes too small for and a frail self-esteem in the way even of asking for access to the things our overweight children would find challenging and fun. If we can keep the focus on fun, on flavor, on bounty, on socialization, on learning, we might have more of a fighting chance in this war we cannot and should not declare on our kids.

Frances Kuffel is the author of Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self.

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