Childhood Obesity: It’s Bigger Than the Number on the Scale
Focus on your child's emotional health before focusing on the scale.
As my son entered school, he began a friendship with an overweight boy. As the years went by his friend became obese and it was heart-breaking to see all that this child endured. He would join the baseball team, only to be made fun of because of his inability to run around the bases. As he entered middle school, his grades began to suffer and the sick days were racking up. By high school he was suffering from depression and could barely get around the school. Childhood obesity has become a problem in the United States, with a staggering number of 12.7 million children in the age range of 2-19 years. There are several causes for childhood obesity, including a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle but genetic factors also play a role. Solving this problem can be especially difficult if you have a special needs child. Those of us, with children on the spectrum, are constantly trying to get our children out of their bedrooms and into the world of exercise. Understanding the cycle that many of these children find themselves in can be difficult. There may also be a lack of understanding within families as to what proper nutrition is all about. But if you have a child who is struggling with their weight or know a child who is obese, they are probably suffering from more than that high number on the scale. There is a stress cycle that keeps a child off course and hinders their ability to overcome obesity.
Emotional Stress: Even though a child with weight issues may seem okay, more likely they are suffering emotionally. Name calling and feeling that they are different can wreak havoc on a child’s self-esteem. Just going to gym class and not being able to keep up with the other kids can cause deep seeded stress and feelings of inadequacy. There is a social stigma in our society associated with being overweight as well, and even very young children may view themselves as unlovable. All of this can translate into poor grades and more time spent alone and isolated. Emotional stress can lead to emotional eating that, of course, exasperates the problem. It can be hard to even feel worthy of change and a healthier life style.
Physical Stress: The physical toll of childhood obesity can be as obvious as watching an obese child play at the playground. But the bigger picture is the social aspect of play. It is more difficult for an obese child to be a part of a team and contribute to sports. They may feel intimidated to even try. But more than this are the health factors that increase due to obesity. Research shows that 25-60 percent of newly diagnosed Type 2 Diabetes is now in obese children, a condition that was previously only seen in adults. Also, an obese child is more likely to become an obese adult leading to physical issues such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Carrying extra wright can cause real pain, even in adolescent children as joints and the skeletal system are over worked. When it is painful to walk up a flight of stairs, think about how difficult it would be to begin an exercise program and stick to it.
Mental Health: It might be surprising to learn that research has shown that environmental factors can cause a release of high levels of stress hormones. These hormones can change the brains physiology and lead to mental illness. Obese children may be more likely to have issues such as depression, learning disabilities and delayed development. The mental aspects of obesity can play a big role in perpetuating the cycle. Depression can lead to a lack of motivation while the development of learning disabilities can create other self-esteem issues. Not every obese child will fall into poor mental health but it’s something to consider when helping your child overcome the weight issue that they are struggling with.
Obesity in children is so much more than the scale. It is difficult to change direction when you see so many road blocks in the way. An obese child may feel that it is useless to try. But there are a few things to remember when encouraging your child to healthier lifestyle. Ask yourself if this is something that the entire family can work on together. Start slow, with walks after dinner or weekend activities that include mild exercise. Talk to a nutritionist and then take everyone grocery shopping. You may need to consult a psychologist to help with self-esteem issues. Put the scale in the closet for a while and work towards a lifestyle change that speaks to the emotional as well as physical health of your child. And, most of all, give it time.
The Good News!
CDC and Obesity
- Childhood Obesity Facts | Overweight & Obesity | CDC
Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States. Learn more...
- The Emotional Toll of Childhood Obesity | Psychology Today
Why is still okay to tease "the fat kid?"