Katelyn: I can’t believe it—I gained another four pounds!
Dad: Don’t worry about some number on a scale. You look fine.
Katelyn: No, Dad, I’m really getting too big. I couldn’t fit into any costumes for the school play the other day, and that’s embarrassing!
Dad: I’m very sorry. I guess we should talk about making some changes.
As parents of daughters, the last thing we want is to add to the messages our girls get about being model-thin. Yet we can’t ignore the troubling trend of childhood obesity that is affecting thousands of girls and boys. Nearly one out of every four children and teens is overweight or obese, and many already suffer from obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, not to mention self-consciousness and teasing.
The good news is that parents can both continue to advocate body acceptance and facilitate weight loss when needed. “The best way to decrease overweight is to create an environment that promotes healthy lifestyles,” says Joanne Ikeda, founder of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berkeley. Families should forget strict diets and scale watching, and instead focus on providing healthy foods and fun physical activities, as well as curbing stress, which often leads to unhealthy eating practices and may itself contribute to obesity.
The girls who are most likely to succeed at making healthy changes are those who are most accepting of their bodies, she adds. “It’s only when people feel good about themselves that they’ll make meaningful changes,” she says. “Making people feel bad about their size has never helped them lose weight.”
And parents and girls should be prepared to discover that a child’s natural, healthy weight is one that may be above “normal” size, reminds St. Paul psychotherapist Kathy Kater, author of Real Kids Come in All Sizes: Ten Essential Lessons to Build Your Child’s Body Esteem (Random House, 2004). “If your daughter is satisfying her hunger with healthy foods and maintaining a good level of physical activity, she is likely at her natural size,” says Kater, who cautions against relying on weight charts and body mass index measures to determine the “right” number for a child’s weight. “Our bodies are genetically predisposed to be not only taller or shorter but thinner or thicker,” she notes. If a healthy lifestyle is in place, further efforts to change genetic factors and internal weight regulatory mechanisms will backfire, Kater says.
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