Overweight Children

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

With childhood obesity on the rise for both boys and girls, this children's health problem should be of concern to educators. According to the United States Surgeon General's report in 1999, 13% of children ages 6 to 11 years and 14% of adolescents ages 12 to 19 years in the United States were overweight. This percentage has more than doubled in the last twenty years.

Obese adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight adults who have an increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, obstructive sleep apnea (interrupted breathing while asleep that can result in daytime lethargy or even death), reduced lifespan and some forms of cancer. Children with type 2 diabetes face a disabling disease with a future of health risks including eye, heart, and kidney damage, as well as poor circulation in the legs and feet. Not only are there critical physical consequences to childhood obesity, but overweight children often exhibit low self-esteem, depression and risky behavior as a result of being teased.

Although only medical professionals are qualified to determine whether a child's weight is unhealthy, obesity is generally defined as being more than thirty percent above ideal body weight for a child's height. In simple terms, obesity occurs when a person eats more calories than the body uses. However, the causes of obesity are complex and may include genetic, biological, behavioral and cultural factors.

Obesity in childhood is often related to:

  • eating habits
  • lack of physical activity
  • family history
  • medical illness
  • stress
  • emotional/social problems
  • genetics

As the abundance of high-caloric foods and a sedentary lifestyle impact our population, the imbalance between consumption and expenditure have led to an increase in adult and childhood obesity. A partial contributor to this problem in children is the lack of physical education in schools. Due to budget constraints and the push for higher test scores, many schools have eliminated physical education classes. Yet, most educators agree that learning in all areas is increased when physical instruction is included in the curriculum.

When school administrators rely on proceeds from soft drink and candy sales for needed funds, they contribute to the problem, as well. There is also a concern about the food served in school cafeterias. Some schools have contracted with food chains to provide meals. However, most nutritionists would recommend lunch programs emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than "fast food."

What can educators do to promote a healthy diet in children?
  • Teach and model healthy living habits including eating nutritious foods, being physically active and avoiding drugs.

  • If no physical education is offered in your school, exercise, move to music or play active games with your students each day.

  • Encourage the students to be active by having them keep track of time spent doing physical activities.

  • Teach about nutritious foods and have the children keep a food diary to encourage them to make healthy eating choices.

  • Read stories or books about characters who model healthy living habits. For example, read Kelly Bear Health to children in kindergarten through third grade.

  • Help children understand that eating is not a cure for their emotional or social problems, but that discussing them or using other positive coping skills such as writing down feelings, listening to music, hugging a pet, exercising, etc. are more beneficial actions to take. For additional coping skills see one of my past articles, Helping Children Cope with Anger.

What specifically can educators do to help overweight children?
  • Focus on their positive qualities.

  • Do not embarrass them by calling attention to their weight.

  • Provide support and encouragement.

  • Seek help from other school personnel and/or meet with a parent to encourage him or her to consult a nutritionist or a physician concerning their child's weight.

How can educators elicit parental cooperation?
  • Meet with the parent or parents. (You may want to combine discussing this topic with a regularly scheduled parent conference.)

  • Be aware of cultural differences when speaking with parents, and make sure they understand that your concern is for the well-being of their child. Say, "I have asked you here today because I care about (child's name)."

  • Engage the parent by saying something positive about the child. Then say something like, "We know that children do their best in school when they are healthy. Being overweight can cause serious health problems now and later in life. I realize there may be a medical reason for his/her size, but I am concerned about (child's name)'s weight." Allow time for the parent to respond as you listen carefully. If there is no response, you may want to add, "What are your concerns?" Repeat what is said in a nonjudgmental way. If deemed appropriate recommend the parent consult a nutritionist or physician concerning his/her child's health, and/or ask, "Would you like me to share some ideas that may be helpful?"

  • If the parent says "yes," provide basic nutritional information in the parent's language. (Ask your local health department or check out other sources for fliers on nutrition. Local food bank information may also be shared.)

  • You might begin by saying, "Tell me about (child's name) eating habits. What does he/she like to eat?" Reinforce the positive items named, emphasizing a child's need for vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein from a variety of foods.

  • Help the parent understand that eating large amounts of fat and other high calorie foods, such as donuts, chips, soda, cookies, sugar coated cereals, etc., instead of nutritious food, is detrimental to their child's healthy development. Discourage the purchase of these items.

  • Discuss the benefits of eating a balanced breakfast and healthy snacks such as fruit and raw vegetables.

  • Inform the parent of the importance of eating slowly and only when hungry, and not when bored or watching television.

  • Suggest that the parent redirect overeating by providing options like playing outside or inside doing craft projects, playing games, reading, or helping with chores.

  • Point out that that drinking lots of water is good for children.

  • State that using food as a reward or withholding food as punishment are not ways to foster healthy eating habits.

  • Stress the benefits of having a peaceful family meal together without television. (See Is Family Mealtime Important? on www.kellybear.com).

  • Indicate that children's food preferences are learned through repeated exposure to them and by observing parental choices.

  • Encourage the parent to model a healthy approach to eating and exercise.

  • Caution against the use of crash diets or diet pills. Suggest that any modification of their child's eating habits and/or physical activity must take place slowly, over time.

  • Assert that children cannot be expected to make changes totally on their own; therefore, the whole family may need to modify their eating habits and engage in more physical activity.

  • Advise decreasing the time the child and/or family spend watching television, using the computer or playing video games.

  • Reinforce the benefit of children participating in dance, aerobics, sports teams and/or exercise. When possible, emphasize their child's interest in an activity. You could say something like, "(Child's name) seems to enjoy playing basketball. Would it be possible for him/her to join a team?"

  • Ask, "What do you and (child's name) enjoy doing together outside?" Suggest that whenever possible the family engage in physical activity such as walking, biking, playing ball, doing yard work, etc.

  • If considered appropriate, share information concerning support groups.

  • Summarize by stating what action you will take. For example, you could say, "I will encourage (child's name) to eat nutritious foods here at school." Then add, "We have discussed many ideas. Change does not have to happen all at once and one small step in the right direction can make a difference. What do you think you will do?" Listen carefully.

  • Thank the parent for coming and end on a positive note such as, "I'm sure (child's name) will feel better and increase his/her overall health if you ...(repeat what the parent said he/she would do)."

  • End the conference with, "Since I care about (child's name), I would like to meet with you again. Would that be possible? When would a meeting be convenient for you?"
  • Note: You may include the child in the parent conference depending on his/her age, maturity level and personality. If the child is present, encourage him/her to participate in the discussion and to set one or two goals. For example, "I will exercise five days a week for ten minutes," or "I will not eat while watching television."

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com]. 8/03

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