Helping overweight children is much more than a matter of healthy eating
I found this article written by Chrissie Webber who has battled obesity for most of her child and adult life, and she explains what did and didn’t help her.
This is a MUST read for anyone with children that have the potential to become overweight or who are already overweight. Chrissie captures the problems children face and comes up with some real solutions to help.
CHILDHOOD obesity is a growing problem that will soon reach epidemic proportions. The issues, though, for parents and children, are far more complex than those of education in healthy eating and lifestyle.
Attitude to food, body image and the psychology behind this weighty issue must be addressed if we are to help our children.
This highlights for me – an obese child who grew into an obese adult – the issue of how we act as role models for our children. For 98% of us, diets don’t work. In fact, they gradually increase our weight problem.
The mindset dieting creates generates demotivation and low self-esteem through guilt, shame, self-loathing and a battle with food. Is this what we want for our children? If the tools of the dieting game are not working for us, how can we possibly teach them to our children and expect them to work?
Parents need new tools – habits and beliefs around food and body image – for parenting in a world of food abundance. They need support, just as the overweight children do, in discovering a life without food as its central focus.
Both parents and children need support to learn to love themselves and their body in a way that aids permanent weight loss. So, what else is needed to fight the childhood obesity crisis?
I can only talk from a personal standpoint, one that has seen me break away from the cultural concepts of a dieting mindset to find the weight I was born to be. Making changes in the way I view and use food, how I motivate myself to exercise and the life changes I have made, enabled me to drop five dress sizes and maintain the weight loss.
My life experience convinces me that we need to support and help parents and children who struggle with the issues of obesity. The last thing they need is condemnation and shame.
Shame dominated my life. My problems began at birth, weighing in at just 2lb 12oz. It was no wonder that my concerned mother began her campaign to “fatten me up” when I eventually got home from hospital. She was doing her best, just like all parents of children who are larger than nature intended.
However, it was not until I went to school that my weight problems really began. I would come home each day, having eaten a school lunch, and nibble on crisps, sandwiches and biscuits. When my father finished work, I would eat again as we took our evening meal together as a family.
There were no boundaries where food was concerned, no rules about what or how much to eat. I ate because I could and because if I was not feeling full, all the time, I felt very frightened. This fear was illogical but very real to me.
On reflection, the reality was far more complex than just the issue of what I ate. In my case the issues that impacted on my weight gain were five fold – I came from a family which put on weight easily and I had a deeply ingrained feeling that there was never enough food. Irrational it may have been, in this world of abundance, but the fear of being hungry has taken me over 50 years to conquer.
My mother had no idea what a balanced diet was. She had been a very skinny child and therefore delighted in my love of food. In addition to this she used food as a comforter.
As I got older, I used food as a means of rebellion against what I then saw as a very controlling father. My size was a cry for attention. Inside I was crying out to be seen and to be loved for who I was and for the potential of who I could become.
And so the weight piled on until I was a size 22 at 16 years old, then later to a massive size 30 (over 21 stone) by my mid forties.
This, of course, brought its problems right through childhood. Growing up as a fat kid was not easy. The stigma and bullying were only part of the problem. Worst of all were the ingrained messages that I was just not good enough.
Most of the time I didn’t fit in, no matter how much I tried. As for feeling attractive, that was just not possible when the latest fashions looked awful on me. My teenage years were in the mini-skirted era of the ’60s, so you can understand why.
These messages became my belief systems that wrongly informed me, in adulthood, that I was a failure, unattractive and unlovable. For too many years they bound me to a life of food and weight obsession. That was unless my self-loathing kicked in and then I would not care what size I was.
I just wanted to eat food and be happy. Well, that was the illusion created by a childhood of comfort eating. The reality was one of deep unhappiness, where I felt unlovable. As for loving myself enough to care about my health, that was something I had never considered, so powerful were the negative messages I had absorbed as I grew up.
These negative messages from those around you, in childhood, have a powerful impact on future life. Other people are never aware of the huge effect they have. Even a passing remark can be as devastating as continuous bombardment of negative messages.
They often come, as in my case, from the fears or embarrassment of others. My belief that I was ugly and not loveable stemmed from the jokes my father used to make about my size, when he showed people a picture of me taken at London Zoo with an orangutan. It was his way of overcoming his embarrassment at having a fat daughter and one I forgave him for a long time ago.
As for the belief that fat adults and children are lazy, in so many cases, that is a myth. In junior school I loved Scottish country dancing. At secondary school I played rounders, netball, tennis and badminton. It was the competitiveness I loved and I was often picked to play on the school team. I also cycled everywhere as we lived in a village and all my friends were in the next village. My problem was that my intake of food far outweighed my daily exercise.
For many children, these days, the inclusion of physical activity in school has decreased. The government is focusing on healthy eating in childhood but this is only one part of the equation. All children need to enjoy exercising, with the emphasis being on fun.
I dreaded and hated the gym as I could not climb the ropes or jump the vaulting box. This made me feel useless and a failure. So the fear of gyms and exercise followed me into adulthood.
I was lucky though, that in other ways I was successful. I had an inner drive that made me determined to show people that I was good enough in other areas of my life. My singing voice was good, along with my acting ability, and often led to me taking lead roles in school plays and musicals. Also, like many overweight children, I learnt how to draw people to me by my fun and caring nature.
This ability to make people like me was not always enough. I was different but needed so much to be accepted for who I was, despite my size. Prejudice played a large part in my childhood. The belief that because I was large I would not be capable of doing things like canoeing or water skiing was in adult minds, not mine. This was despite the fact that I had been a strong swimmer from the age of nine. What so many large children lack, as I did, is the ability to feel that they can achieve despite their size.
Once size and food become dominant issues, the potential of the child is no longer the feature. For me it was the impetus to say, “I’ll show you how good I really am, in my way,” which created my ability to eventually succeed in life. Sadly, for many overweight children the struggle for their own identity is too much of a battle and they give up. The struggle is all the more difficult when your self-esteem is at rock bottom as mine w
as at times. So I quickly learnt to put on a front, to laugh at all the “fat jokes” and even to make fun of my own size before others did.
To my detriment, this approach only allowed the bullies to win as I gave my personal power over to them by losing control of my emotions. Bullying is something I experienced all through my school years. The adults, though, considered none of it a problem. So it felt to me as if it were my entire fault. I was fat and ugly and I deserved to be treated in that way.
Eventually I was introduced to the one thing I believed would rescue me from this fat jacket that had grown around me – my excess weight. The Diet. This game with food was my rescuer and then my persecutor. I learned to make certain foods “bad” only to crave them and then believe it was my fault for not being able to lose weight permanently. I learned to listen to what others said I should do or eat and never learned to listen to my own body.
The more I failed, the more I felt not good enough and the more stressed I became. And the result of all this negativity and stress was the usual comfort eating with its inevitable weight gain.
This is what we are now instilling into our children. Following more than three decades of a dieting culture, children are growing up believing that food is “good” or “bad”.
Inevitably, this brings into play the negative emotions of guilt, shame and self-loathing. This is the inheritance we create for our children when we perpetuate the belief that to be happy and accepted you need to be a certain shape, size or weight.
What I needed as a child was a healthy attitude to food, to know how to listen to my body and to eat consciously. I needed to learn what it was to love myself and to view food as a fuel on which to live my life to my full potential. Many children are destined for a life battling with food, hating themselves and their body image, unless we begin to do something about it.
Firstly, it begins with us, the adults. We need to learn and then teach a healthy attitude to food and body image. We need to look past the weight to the potential, teaching children that self-love is the most important gift we can give ourselves. From this flows a body awareness that enhances “conscious eating” habits and a positive body image.
By teaching this we give them the building blocks on which to create their lives where the focus is on eating to live, not living to eat.
* For more information about Chrissie Webber’s motivational techniques, please visit www.lifeshapers.co.uk