By Wilma Bedford
The pandemic has perhaps not left its mark on your child’s social and emotional health only, but also on his or her body and he or she is now in danger of being stigmatised as fat.
During the pandemic we stay at home more, have more access to the fridge, bed and TV. The weight gain is worsened by the absence of schools, sport and other attention-diverting activities that used to give the day structure.
Adults also have a problem with pandemic weight gain. Pandemic weight gain is not only a product of diet and exercise; the social context and family context must also be taken into consideration when a change in lifestyle is attempted – which is not always easy.
Why is it a problem? Obese children between the ages of four and six years are 42 times more inclined to be fat in their teens. Child obesity is a serious health risk and increases a child’s corona risk. There are also other weight-related risks such as sleep apnoea and asthma, joint pains, blood pressure and cholesterol, which could lead to heart-related diseases, liver problems and far-reaching psychological problems due to discrimination, verbal, cyber-, physical and relationship bullying, poor self-image, stigmatisation and status classification.
Weight is the most common reason why children are bullied and, apart from the consequences regarding self-image and mental health, it affects children’s eating patterns and increases the risk that they will remain sedentary and get even fatter.
Weight-related mockery and bulling by peers or family is a precursor of obesity later on, and emotional eating has far-reaching consequences for future health. The mockery during adolescence leads up to binge eating, poor body image, obesity and a higher BMI (body-mass index) 15 years later.
What can you, as a parent, do? The causes of obesity are obvious: it is a cycle of overeating, little physical activity and energy-laden food, but intervention is not always easy because children are bombarded with conflicting messages – be slender and healthy, but at the same time there are constant advertisements for intemperance and indulgence. However, you as parent, determine and control food purchases, meal times, and you lay the foundation for lifelong eating habits and can therefore intervene to some extent.
Do not blame the child for his obesity. Should you substitute the word asthma for obesity the child will not be blamed for his condition but his environment will be changed to promote health and he will be given medicine.
Make healthy food choices for your child. Your child must know that there is everyday food that is healthy. And sometimes there is food that is served by way of exception or occasionally as a spoil. Do not stock food with a high sugar content or fats. Check the sugar and fat content of a product by reading the label. Keep healthy food in the larder so that your child cannot make the wrong choices.
At home the budget no longer allows healthier and more expensive food choices. Get children involved in food preparation and meal planning on a tight budget. Create health awareness in respect of whole-wheat products, fruit, vegetables and water rather than sugared soft drinks.
The most effective way to help children is to make healthy changes for the whole family regardless of the weight of the rest. Start with small changes to the diet by stocking sugar-free soft drinks and by physically movement every day, by walking to the shop or walking the dog. Let the children choose one item that they think could be changed to keep the family healthier and invent strategies to achieve success. The message is still that, although change is necessary, they can still enjoy special days such as birthdays , with moderate portions or healthier snacks.
How you talk to your child is important. Guilt and blame make children feel bad and then they are not motivated for healthy behaviour. Avoid words such as fat and obese; they stigmatise. Use neutral words such as weight and body-mass index. Do not tell your child that he or she is soon going to look like his or her overweight uncle or aunt. Criticism and stigmatisation will not motivate him or her to lose weight. Focus on positive reinforcement, see the child and not the figure on the scale. Encourage and praise your child for positive choices he or she makes, for goals achieved, however small, so that the self-image stays intact. Discussions about weight or mockery at mealtimes are inappropriate and unacceptable and avoid remarks about somebody’s weight especially at birthdays or celebrations – regardless of how slender or round the person may be.
Focus on behaviour, not weight. Focus on good health and a healthy lifestyle. Design a healthy and positive attitude and physical activity that are conducive to a healthy body and mind. Focus on the family, do not exempt overweight children. Involve the whole family in cultivating a healthy lifestyle.
Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa
Public Relations and Communications Officer
There’s No Easy Fix for Children’s Weight Gain
By Perri Klass, M.D. Jan. 25, 2021 New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/well/family/child-obesity-weight-pandemic.html
How Not to Talk to a Child Who Is Overweight
By Perri Klass, M.D. Nov. 20, 2017
Weight-Based Victimization: Bullying Experiences of Weight Loss Treatment–Seeking Youth
Puhl, R.M. Peterson,J. L. Luedicke.J. Pediatrics January 2013, 131 (1) e1-e9; DOI: 2012-1106https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.