From the January 2018 issue

What You Say to Your Kids About Weight Has a Big Impact on Health

In fact, kids who are stigmatized for their weight are more likely to binge eat and less likely to exercise, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports.

“You look so beautiful – from the neck up.”

“You have got to lose those hips.”

“If you lost a little weight, you’d look so much better.”

I’ve heard it all. In fact, I’ve spent most my life experiencing some form of fat shaming from family. In my early school years, I was considered a “big girl” because I was taller and curvier than many of my classmates.

As a result, I’ve spent most of my 30 years battling the scale (I went on my first diet at age 11 and have fluctuated ever since), and it’s shaped the way I’ve viewed myself.

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So I wasn’t surprised to read that even those well-meaning talking-tos parents have with their kids about weight can undercut their health and well-being.

According to a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Weight stigma is often propagated and tolerated in society because 
of beliefs that stigma and shame will motivate people to lose weight.”

But it actually has the opposite effect on kids.

“It probably contributes to the obesity, because people do eat to soothe themselves,” says Dr. Gregory Mahr, the director of psychosomatic medicine at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. “When they are eating, they get a surge of insulin, and it creates a peaceful feeling. So they get hooked on that feeling.”

Binge eating is one result of fat shaming, the AAP notes, along with social isolation, decreased physical activity and the avoidance of health care services, to name a few.

“You’re almost encouraging that kind of food addiction that makes people feel hopeless,” Mahr says.

Weight stigma

Obesity is the most prevalent chronic condition among children in our country. In fact, one-third of U.S. children are either overweight or obese, the AAP reports.

“We see kids who have abnormal eating behaviors because of the stigma of their weight,” says Dr. Majda Hannish, director of pediatric weight management at the Hough Center for Adolescent Health at Beaumont Children’s in Troy. And it doesn’t stop at home.

At school, this type of shaming is one of the most frequent forms of reported peer harassment. “A study of adolescents seeking weight loss treatment found that 71 percent reported being bullied about their weight in the past year,” the AAP notes.

The stigma carries to teachers, too, who’ve reported having lower academic, social and physical expectations of students with obesity.

Even health care professionals can be guilty, the AAP reports. “Research shows that physicians associate obesity with noncompliance and decreased medication adherence, hostility, dishonesty and poor hygiene.”

The AAP recommends doctors use non-biased language, empathetic and empowering counseling techniques and address weight stigma and bullying during visits, plus empower “families to be advocates to address weight stigma in the home environment and school setting.”

Stop the shame

Don’t call kids “fat,” Hannish says. Avoid weighing your kid and telling her to lose weight, she adds. Don’t focus on the numbers on the scale. “It’s about a lifestyle,” Hannish says.

And it’s a lifestyle both Mahr and Hannish agree families should adopt together – that way, no one is being singled out, and it’s a family mission to eat healthier and be more active.

It starts at the dinner table. Eat together – and don’t do it in front of the TV. That way you’re able to listen to your body. “Do you really need to eat another cookie, or is your body just bored?” Hannish says to ask a child.

“When it comes to nutrition, this is what the expectation is: We don’t skip meals, because skipping meals promotes binging later on or not nourishing your body the right way,” Hannish adds.

Next, get moving.

“Our body needs to move. It shouldn’t be sitting around all the time,” Hannish says. Tell kids to put away their phones and take a walk together.

Or, instead of eating chips and watching the game, Mahr suggests throwing a ball around outside. Kid hesitant? “Remember, the kid is probably doing that because he feels embarrassed about his physical ability,” Mahr says.

Encourage your child to look at the non-competitive aspect of sports – and make it more about fun.

Finally, try to put yourself in his or her shoes. Would you want to hear how much you need to lose weight?

“The best guideline is not to say something you wouldn’t want to hear yourself,” Mahr says. I couldn’t agree more.

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