By Jocelyn Sherman, RD, LDN at Butler Hospital
While recently browsing my social media newsfeed, I happened upon an NPR article titled, “Many Kids Who are Obese or Overweight Don’t Know It.” My immediate reaction was anger, just at the title alone. I thought, Of course, they don’t know it, they shouldn’t! Why should a nine-year-old boy think about his weight? Why should a six-year-old girl be concerned of obesity? Please, don’t misunderstand me; childhood obesity is quite concerning and, no doubt, something that needs addressing. I know this on two fronts – as a professional registered dietitian who provided specialized treatment for people with eating disorders for 13 years and as a mother of two young girls. From both perspectives, the article missed an important factor in the health and wellbeing of kids—the need for kids to be kids and not have adult worries.
As I continued with the article, I was unsettled by this statement: “Children who don’t have a correct perception of their weight don’t take steps to lose weight.” I cringed at the thought of a child attempting weight loss. If one of my daughters came to me wanting to lose weight, I’d be riddled with worry. Eating disorders can develop at any age; children and adolescents are at particular risk.
As a dietitian and a mom, my concern with these kinds of news stories is how the average person interprets the information. How will they use it? My daughters, six and eight years old, are growing up in a culture with many mixed messages about food, diets and weight – magazine covers with messages about being thin, commercials for weight loss programs and, unfortunately, hearing other people complain about their bodies. I’m uncomfortable when women are negative about their bodies in front of my children. I want my girls to see that women love their bodies. I’m also uneasy when I see a parent provide lots of sugar-free and/or diet products to their children. I don’t want my girls to think that these foods are a healthy norm. I don’t want anyone to think that. The most difficult situation I’ve encountered is being around an adult who is making negative comments about someone else’s body. Please, not around my children. What I’ve learned to accept is that I can’t control what other people do, but I have full control of what I can do. Here’s how that goes:
As a mom of two amazing girls, my mission is clear. Model the behavior I want to see in them. I never speak negatively of my body. What they witness is a mom who will mow the lawn, get dirty in the garden and get dressed up for special occasions. I want them to see being strong is important. They’ve never witnessed any extreme dieting measures from me or my husband, and they never will. Our responsibility is to provide a variety of foods, meals and snacks, for our family. We don’t label them as “good” or “bad.” All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle. There is no calorie talk, no sugar-free this or diet-that. Food is not demonized. No one should ever feel shame for eating. What my girls see is their mom and dad sharing the responsibility of providing quality meals. We eat together in the dining room or outside. No television during meals and no electronic devices. I’m thankful for the environment we’ve fostered.
I know my girls are still so young, but my hope is that we’ve planted the seeds for their life-long positive body images. So far, so good. I’m proud when I see what they’ve accomplished and how they enjoy life. They play hard outside for hours and hours, riding bikes, climbing trees, swimming and getting messy in the dirt, catching critters for their habitats. I love that they enjoy our family adventures like hiking at our favorite local spot, our time to reconnect with nature and disconnect from everything else. They are confident, creative and adventurous little ladies that should only have little worries. For many years to come, I will worry about meeting their needs while they enjoy being children.
Jocelyn Sherman, RD, LDN, is the Clinical Nutrition Manager at Butler Hospital.
If you’re struggling to help your child with any type of health issue, start by talking to their pediatrician. You can also visit Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island’s Pediatric Primary Care Services to handle all of your child’s health care needs from birth through adolescence.
More from Jocelyn on how food affects mood.