In addition to being known for peaches and pecans, Georgia has the unique distinction of having the second highest rate of childhood obesity. To slim down that statistic, Georgia Children’s Health Alliance launched the $50 million Strong4Life campaign, which includes suggestions for eating well and staying active, as well as some controversial commercials and print ads to raise awareness.
In one ad, there’s a black and white photo of a sad-looking girl with copy that reads: “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.”
In another video, a tween boy asks, “Mom, why am I fat?” And another ad with a solemn teen reads, “My fat may be funny to you, but it’s killing me.”
Like the Strong4Life tagline says, they want to “stop sugar-coating the problem” of childhood obesity. But for many parents, nutritionists and psychologists, their strategy of singling out kids has been tough to swallow.
Social worker Heather Quinlan, who specializes in counseling children and teenagers, points out that shaming and mocking aren’t effective motivators. “If [ridicule] was enough to make people lose weight and be healthy, there would be a lot fewer people overweight at every age in this country,” says Quinlan.
YouBeauty Psychology Advisor and the author of “Smart Thinking” Art Markman doubts the campaign will be effective in achieving its goals based on the similarities in approach it shares with unsuccessful anti-smoking campaigns. From a purely marketing perspective, “We know that fear campaigns don’t work.” He also argues that obesity awareness, or pointing out people who are fat, seems redundant to anyone with a mirror.
But how can you reach out and talk to kids about the highly touchy subject of their weight? While the state of Georgia’s approach is debatable, the problem is something we struggle with nationwide. Currently, the CDC estimates that 17 percent of kids ages two through nineteen are obese. That’s triple the rate just a generation ago. Yikes!
Clearly, it’s important to start a dialogue about weight with our kids. So we asked the experts to weigh in— no pun intended— on six simple, supportive and age-appropriate steps to broach the topic and ensure that our children get and stay healthy.
Focus on Health
How many times have you told your child, “it’s what’s inside that counts”? Well, when it comes to wellness and nutrition, that couldn’t be more true.
The first step is to stop thinking of weight issues as mainly an appearance problem. In fact, “The best approach is not talking specifically about the weight itself,” explains YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D. She suggests that when you talk to your child, don’t talk about dieting or fat, but rather a desire to be healthy.
Quinlan, who has counseled many teens with eating disorders, couldn’t agree more. An emphasis on looks, like the Strong4Life campaign, is dangerous because, “it almost serves to define people based on their weight and that is the last thing that we want in terms of people having healthy body images and healthy perspectives on themselves,” she notes.
Health is something we can all get behind without chipping away at our body confidence.
It’s A Family Affair
Kirkpatrick insist that to achieve a healthy lifestyle you have to include your whole family, not just pick on a troubled member or two. After all, healthy eating is in everyone’s best interest. “Even if mom and dad or the other siblings aren’t overweight, it still needs to become a family affair,” Kirkpatrick says. “It can’t be something like, ‘Okay, you’re going to go on a diet!’ That doesn’t work with kids.”
And Kirkpatrick knows first hand how to talk to children because she herself struggled with weight as a kid. With the help of a dietician, she and her family turned things around together. She suggests you start by including your children in meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking so they feel empowered and involved in their own healthy lifestyle. Be sure to include plenty of vegetables and fruits—cherry-flavored soda doesn't count.
You also want to be sure to skip foods that are processed. Kirkpatrick is quick to point out that the timing of the rise in obesity coincides with the rise of convenience foods. “Our parents may have been making meals from scratch, but now people can just put things in the microwave or the oven—highly processed foods, refined grains, lots of fat, lots of calories,” she says. Don’t fall into the fast food trap and go for whole foods—fruits, vegetables, lean protein and complex carbohydrates—instead.
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