Tackling a child's weight issues is a touchy subject

Published: Friday, Jan. 4 2013 4:00 p.m. MST

Although Covington and Emerson are only 5 and 3, their mother, Tobie Baumann, talks to them about food and exercise in terms of health, not weight. It's important to teach children to value and care for their bodies young, says the Cartersville, Ga., mom, who is also a fitness expert.

Family photo

PONTIAC, Mich. — He was having dinner with his pal's family, savoring delicious homemade Mexican food. As a lifelong member of the "clean plate club," he said thanks and dug in when his friend's grandma offered more. Later, he met up with friends having dinner at a restaurant — "something new and tasty you just have to try," they urged. As they visited, he finished their meals, too.

At home that night, Ryan Blanck looked in the mirror. He was 16, weighed 240 pounds, about 100 more than his frame needed. He wasn't an unhappy or bullied kid; he had tons of friends. But he had the wits, he says years later, to ask himself a question: "What are you doing to yourself?" He felt sluggish and didn't like his reflection in the mirror.

"I knew nothing about nutrition," says Blanck, now 32, who founded Deviate, a performance consulting company that works with athletes and celebrities in Grand Blanc, Mich. "But I put on a pair of shoes and covered, mostly walking, a loop we called 'The Mile.' And I started to change."

Anyone who's tuned into media has heard America is in the middle of an "obesity epidemic." Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and half of those are obese. Also too heavy are nearly 1 in 5 children; experts say this generation of kids may be the first to not have longer lives than their parents. Pediatricians say ills formerly found in adults like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes now appear in younger patients.

Those facts, though, compete with different bad news: Children are inundated with unreal messages about their bodies and how they should look. If you peel back origins of eating disorders, you may find distorted body images were the accelerant.

Given the conflicts, how should a parent address real concerns about a child's weight and overall health without unleashing unwanted effects or smashing a child's confidence and self-esteem?

"Parents walk a difficult tightrope because the obesity epidemic is real," says Edward Abramson, author of "It's Not Just Baby Fat." He says being overweight has psychological risks. "Stigma attaches as early as kindergarten and doesn't go away; 100 percent of obese teenage girls had been at least verbally abused about their weight and studies show discrimination in school and work settings and in dating and relationships."

Still, parents should use caution. A food fight can turn into an eating disorder. "Those consequences are profound, but on the other hand, if you look at eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, there is almost invariably a history of diet and over-emphasis on weight. … It's hard to watch kids gain weight, knowing what the consequences are, but if parents are over-involved, there's backlash," he adds.

It may also unleash a battle of wills, another place for a growing child to push against parental restrictions, he says. "That's part of growing up. But you don't want to make food part of that battle."

Simply fuel

Parents inadvertently give different messages about food: If you can't have dessert until you eat your vegetables, Abramson says, even a little kid can figure out that dessert is good, vegetables bad, the obstacle between you and reward.

Or this one: Skinny is the only good body type.

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