My eyes fell upon a horrible newspaper headline from 2008: “Fat kids die earlier.” That is the first article that I remember talking about obesity in childhood, but there were plenty more in the early 2000s. At the time, I clipped it because it reinforced my approach at the time: identify issues, educate, act, and avoid.
Over the past two decades, there has been an increase in the prevalence of children being diagnosed as overweight and obese.
The jury is out on the specific reasons why. Could it be the processed food, the portion sizes, the composition (macros), the ready-access, the emotional eating, distracted eating, the preservatives, or hormonal disruptions? Could it be us: our genes, our eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle?
The search for an answer, a culprit to blame, and something to fix is buried inside the question of why waistlines are increasing.
Consider this: What if the answer is to stop focusing on the waistline and the scale?
The vast majority of the approaches to childhood weight are to focus on it to control it. We label the weight, first with numbers, then BMI, and then with diagnoses of overweight or obesity. We think that to name it is to tame it. But as we have learned on the playground, when a label is given to you by others, it produces shame by indicating that something is wrong with the person.
Parents approach overweight and obesity in their kids in a very understandable way: fear, worry for their children’s health, the long-term impact of weight, as well as social pressures and bullying. We parents also fear what it means about the job we’ve been entrusted to do: raise our kids to be healthy.
We think that if we change our weight, our kids will have better health, better social interactions, and no bullying. If we help them change, we can tell ourselves that we’ve done all we can and are good parents.
That is the wrong focus.
Fear is a potent motivator to get us moving into action, but fear puts blinders on us – all we see is what we have to fear.
When we focus on the weight, the food, and the exercise – we create fear and a diet mentality for our kids under the guise of trying to avoid the consequences of heavier body weight. We cannot fear ourselves for health or use fear to reach a sustainable, healthy weight.
Fear is exhausting. Willpower is used to avoid foods and to stick with an exercise plan. And eventually, the willpower runs out.
When willpower runs out, when we become exhausted – we seek comfort. And do you know an amazing source of comfort that a lot of us find? Food.
Food is not the enemy. Food is not bad. And neither is our weight. It’s just a small part of the story.
Fearing obesity and focusing so much on what we try to avoid is not the answer.
It’s time to focus on what we do want. The parents that I work with describe wanting to have freedom from food rules, freedom from focusing on weight, and the scale to determine what kind of a day/week/month they’re having. It’s time to focus on improving our relationship with food, our bodies, and our kids.
I took over as the obesity champion for the medical society. First order of business: removing the word obesity. We do not work to champion something with all the connotations of fear and avoidance. I embrace championing what we want. I was briefly the artist formerly known as the obesity champion. And then, I became a healthy lifestyle champion.
It’s not a perfect name, but it is moving toward something. And I am a strong proponent of moving towards what we want, not just looking at what we don’t want, running away, yet constantly keeping an eye on it.
When will we learn that if we really want to impact our society’s weight health, we need to move toward a goal we want? What do we want to create for our health?
Wendy Schofer is a pediatrician.