It’s a quandary: You want your child to feel good about their body, but you also have a child who’s currently overweight. How you handle this situation can make the difference between a healthier life or a lifetime of disordered eating. So, how do you help a child to lose weight without messing them up?
The pandemic hasn’t helped childhood obesity rates. A 2021 study in Pediatrics found that overall obesity increased from 13.7% in 2019 to 15.4% in 2020. And, the previous stats were nothing awesome: the State of Childhood Obesity monitor, updated every two years, found that the rate for 2017-2019 was 19.3%. Such statistics indicate a growing long-term health crisis for kids, rife with risk factors for diabetes, hypertension, and other illnesses.
Of course, you want the very best health (and healthy eating habits) for your child. How do you make that happen, though, if your child is already overweight, or is genetically prone to weight gain? Experts say it’s a balancing act between healthy acceptance and healthy habits, and that the two may coexist.
Listen To “The Fat Girl”
Therapist Ilene Leshinsky, MSW knows from experience what it’s like to be a heavy kid. Her new book, Reflections of a Fat Girl, delves deeply into the relationship between weight gain, poor body image, and disordered eating. She’s also the founder and creator of Find Body Freedom (formerly BodySense), a program for women who want to change their relationship with their bodies.
Leshinsky grew up in the 1950’s, not exactly an enlightened time for women and girls, especially when it came to appearance.
“We weren’t talking about body image, weight, and eating back then like we do today,” Leshinsky tells Parentology. Although well-meaning, her mother succumbed to the pressures of Leshinsky’s grandmother who thought she was too thin and not eating enough.
“My mom overfed me at every meal. She danced around the kitchen and when I laughed shoved a spoonful of something into my mouth,” she explains. “I now know that I lost my hunger and satiety signals because of this. And, I became very overweight by the time I was five.”
Of course, once Leshinsky was indeed overweight, the messages changed from “eat this” to, as she put it, “do you really think you need that?” This was a set up for massive food and body issues that lasted for much of her life, and led her to try and help younger women avoid the same struggles. She thinks that body positivity and body acceptance aren’t mutually exclusive.
“There is a huge difference between body positivity and acceptance because we are taking care of our bodies, learning their language, being guided by their innate wisdom, and loving the bodies we’re in when we’re eating whatever, whenever, and how much we want without regard to the consequences,” Leshinsky explains. “Lovingly attending to our bodies is good! Denial of our bodies and disconnection from them and how we are making them feel is very, very bad!”
Work Together… And Don’t Diet
This cannot be overstated: Diets don’t work. If you have an overweight child, the last thing you should do is put them on a diet. It’ll backfire, big time.
“So many of my adolescent clients over the years have either been put on diets by their parents or doctors or have put themselves on diets because of the peer pressure to be thin and fit in. And they are suffering,” Leshinsky says. “Dieting for kids is dangerous. Their bodies are still growing and their brains and bones are in need of nutrients. If we encourage dieting in kids we are endangering their health. If we teach them healthy eating behaviors, we are giving them skills for life.”
What does work, then? Leshinsky recommends making a lifestyle change as a family. Cooking together, eating together, and exercising together all make for healthy changes as a unit, rather than isolating the child. And, Leshinsky always stresses open communication.
“What I think is so powerful is when moms can share with their daughters how they felt about their bodies at that age. It often becomes an open door to exploring the daughter’s issues with her body, and also how their friends are feeling and what they are doing about their body issues,” Leshinsky says.
One strategy might be to do a reset for the family, like the No Added Sugar 7-day or 28-day reset explained in the recent book, SugarProof. While Leshinsky is not familiar with this method or the book, it has been covered on Parentology and is a method that involves the entire family. Everyone is responsible and no one family member is to blame. According to the original article, those reset taste buds are satisfied with less sugar overall, which allows for healthier choices.
“What I encourage is a family culture shift from the focus on outward appearance to the promotion of healthy lifestyle habits that include eating nutritious foods when we’re hungry, getting appropriate amounts of sleep, moving our bodies regularly (yes, that means exercising), hydrating adequately, and socializing with kids and people who see the real value of our children and make them feel good about themselves,” Leshinsky advises.