Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fat Kids Are Not Healthy or Happy: A Prescription for Parents

As a formerly fat kid, I feel somewhat qualified to address this issue: Childhood Obesity. I’ve kind of ducked and dodged the touchy issue on this blog, mentioning it in passing but never really facing it head on. Well, here goes.

I remember being dragged to the doctor as a chubby 8-year-old and being told I needed to eat more carrots and melba toast and less orange soda and cheese puffs. I felt guilty for every bite I put in my mouth after that. I look back on photos from those years and I certainly was chunky, but I wasn’t “obese.” Still, from the moment I stepped on that scale at the doctor’s office and he frowned, I only ever thought of myself again as fat. Even after I lost those pounds as a teenager, I never lost those pounds in my mind. I’m still conscious of every bite I take and I still judge myself by it. So trust me when I say I’m sensitive about this issue and my heart aches for kids who face it. I know it will color their lives.

Childhood obesity is complicated. It’s not about putting kids on a diet and it’s not about getting them active. Those are two strategies that will put a temporary bandaid on a lifelong sickness.

What we have to do is teach kids to live healthy and care about their bodies. As parents there is much we can do to set them up for success. But it will take time, effort, and a willingness to set an example. Most heavy kids have at least one parent who has, or is, struggling with their own weight. If it’s hard for us, how much harder is it for our kids?

Here’s what you’re up against –

1. Kid’s don’t listen. I know this first hand from 17 years with smart kids who bring home A’s, but still can’t follow a simple instruction like “hang up your towel.” You can talk until you are blue in the face about eating vegetables and getting exercise, but if the people around them aren’t doing this, odds are they can’t hear beyond your behavior.

2. Obesity is killing our kids. Obese kids are increasingly being diagnosed with old people’s problems like

hypertension, diabetes, joint pain, sleep apnea, and worsening asthma. These are health issues typically found in an older population. Bottomline – Being fat isn’t just unattractive and difficulty socially, it can kill our kids. If your kid had cancer you’d do everything you could to heal them, obesity deserves the same effort.

3. Our society makes it very difficult for a young person to eat healthy. Kids are over-saturated with
media nearly every waking hour. There are ads for fast food, high-calorie snacks, and unhealthy options bombarding them all the time. They will think what I thought as a kid – everybody eats this way, why can't I?

4. Getting exercise isn't that easy. To play organized sports as a teenager, there are few options if you don’t make the school team. There are kids and families out there spending thousands of dollars perfecting their game at the elementary level. If you’re an average kid who just wants to play ball, you don’t stand a chance. Our roads and towns offer limited options for walkers and bikers. We don’t encourage a pedestrian society. When my 12-year-old wanted to walk to the store, I had to think on it for days and then worry the entire time she was gone. It’s about ¾ of a mile to the store from our house. The roads have no shoulder and the drivers don’t expect to see anyone walking. Toss in the mom-ingrown stranger-danger fear, and a simple walk becomes a night mare. How can the average kid get any serious exercise?

I don’t have the answer. I wish I did. I’ve contended with my weight for forty years. Here is my best prescription:

1. Restock your pantry. This may be the most important thing I write in this post: If you don't buy it, they can't it eat. Don't buy jumk food. Yes, it may cost more for fresh fruit and veggies, nuts, yogurt, dried fruit, and cheese sticks. Popcorn is the snack of choice at our house - but not the microwave kind that is loaded with preservatives and unhealthy fats (or isn't and tastes like cardboard). I bought an oil popper ($30 at Target) and the kids have learned how to make their own fresh popcorn popped in Canola or Olive oil. Organic popcorn is available relatively inexpensively. I'm not saying you can't buy any junk food - just be picky about what you get and limit the quanitity. I buy each of my kids a box of Cheezits or bag of Chex Mix each week and label it with their name. They can eat it all at once or make it last all week - but that's the only box they're getting. If your cupboard is full of Chips Ahoy, Doritoes, and Lunchables, what makes you think your kids are going to go for the carrot sticks? (They're not.) Sodas and fruit juices are the biggest source of added sugar in your kids' lives. They don't need either. Milk and water are excellent options. Yes, I know they'll complain, but if you do it, they'll do it.

2. Turn off the screens. Don’t just pay lip service. Sure, your kids will be angry. Mine get furious with me..
But once the screen is no longer an option and they’ve yelled themselves hoarse, they find something to do. It’s a proven fact of human nature: Kids won’t stay bored for long. With no screen option, my kids play music, go outside, call a friend to come over and play. Without the draw of time online, they don’t mind signing up for a rec sport. Practice can’t get in the way of screen time they don’t have. Fact: “Overweight kids tend to watch over 2 hours of TV a day.” (University of Michigan) You and I know it’s much more than 2 hours a day. Sitting still starring at a screen eating snack food is a common habit for today’s kids. Eliminate the screen and break the habit. I’m guessing this will be hard for you too, but if giving up your reality TV and bag of chips means your kid doesn’t get hypertension it seems worth the sacrifice. Here's a few stories and ideas about my own screen battlesAnd a few more thoughts on screens.

3. Pack lunch. The same University of Michigan study states that overweight kids are also more likely to buy school lunches. Sure, the government is forcing school lunch programs to add healthy options, but honestly, how many kids are choosing the healthy option? Ask any cafeteria worker what is being thrown away and you’ll have your answer. Macaroni and cheese with a side of bread and some sugary stewed apples is not a healthy lunch. It’s probably nearly enough calories for two meals. It takes effort to pack a lunch. I know that. My solution has been to have my kids pack their own lunches. I provide the options (that don’t include soda, sugary packaged foods, or excessive junk) and they do the packing. This only works if there is very little junk food and packaged food in the house. Again, you control the grocery list which means you control what’s in the pantry. Yes, this will take time and effort. Are you kids not worth this time or effort? Here's some ideas to get you started.

4. Get moving. Hard as it is to believe, you are still a major influence on your children. Find an exercise that
you enjoy and have at it. Your kid will see this. Invite them to join you kayaking or running a 5K or hiking in the woods or even simply walking to the store. Take your bikes or your rollerblades or you basketball out and get moving. Ask your kids what sport they’d like to try. My oldest son had no interest in running or riding horses with me, so he fences and recently took up tennis – smashing the lights and trampling plants as he practiced his serve and return on the garage door. Once again, it will take your own effort to make this happen. I know you are tired, all parents are, but this is important. Need a few ideas, read this.

5. Eat healthy meals together. Once again I’m asking you to do something that isn’t easy and requires your time and money. But this is your one and only chance to teach your children how to plan, cook, and eat healthy meals. It is unlikely that they will figure this out on their own as adults. You need to plan meals that include vegetables, fruit, meat, healthy fats, and simple grains. This means you can’t just open a package of Stouffer’s Lasagna and call it good. Making your own, much healthier lasagna isn’t as hard as you think, but it does require planning and preparation. Whenever I cook lasagna I make at least two and freeze one for another meal. You can make a simple healthy meal by grilling pork chops or steak or chicken, adding brown rice or simple baked potato, and steaming some broccoli and slicing a few oranges. A meal like that can be made in 30 minutes with very little effort. If you can’t spare the time to teach your kids this healthy life skill, I’m here to tell you something has to give. Need some inspiration and ideas for family meals? Read this.

6. This last one will be easier once you get processed sugar and caffeine out of your kids diet – sleep 8 hours a day. Most overweight kids (and adults) don’t get enough sleep. When you are tired it’s hard to make healthy choices and it’s hard to exercise. When it comes to bedtime, you’re the parent so you make the call. Now that my kids are teens, it’s harder to control when they go to sleep, but I set the example by going to bed myself and on mornings when they are really dragging, I innocently ask, “What time did you go to bed last night?” They don’t need me to connect the dots for them. They’re smart kids. They’re figuring it out.

I didn’t write this post to give you a guilt trip, but if it does, I’m fine with that. I’d do anything to help kids lead healthier lives. It is not easy to make changes and you won’t see instant results. It might be expensive. It might mean you have to give up even more of your free time so that you can plan, shop, cook, and exercise. Tough. This is what parenting is about – this is what you signed up for.

I’m not getting this all right either. I argue near daily with my kids about what goes in their mouths. I nag them a lot. And they mostly ignore me. But every now and then there is a break-through. I catch them going to bed early, heading out for a hike in the woods or a walk up the street, fixing a healthy snack. My kids aren’t as healthy as they could be, but they are learning how to live healthy. And some day when that matters more to them, they’ll already have the skills. They just have to decide to do it. So do you.

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