Helping a podgy child to lose weight? Don't force your goals on him. In the second part of a series on helping overweight children, Faith Chang of HealthAnswers looks at what can go very wrong.
Losing Your Cool Over Your Child's Weight?
Though exercise and well-balanced meals are vital to helping an obese child, you should be careful not to go on diets and abuse slimming pills.
A Healthanswers consultant psychiatrist says: "Children should never be put on a crash diet as it is not only dangerous, but it is also sending them the wrong message, saying that this is the way to lose weight."
"Instead, you want to emphasise to the child that the way to go about losing weight is to change unhealthy habits and adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise and a well-balanced diet. This is so to maintain long-term healthy habits."
In Australia, the number of children abusing weight-loss strategies are increasing. Doctors interviewed say the trend here leans towards younger children, mostly females, being anorexic. Also, children as young as seven to eight-year-olds are becoming more conscious of their body image.
When A Child Stops Eating
Take the example of a young patient who went to see a psychiatrist with an eating problem. Even at the tender age of 12, her unhappiness at her body shape drove her to abuse her body.
Jane (not her real name) was plump when she was 12 years old. She was very conscious of her body image and constantly compared herself to her older sister who was slimmer. Although she was a top student in an elite school, she was not confident of her performance in school.
It didn't help that she was constantly teased at school for being plump. She started avoiding oily and fried foods in her diet, and ate vegetables and steam foods instead. She would also exercise by playing basketball and would use every opportunity to walk instead of using transport.
When Jane was about 14, her mother discovered that she was not eating and had experienced dramatic weight loss. By the time Jane was brought to see a psychiatrist, she was already 15 per cent below her healthy BMI range. She had also stopped menstruating.
Criteria For Diagnosing Anorexia
The following criteria, from the American Psychiatric Association, is used to diagnose patients with anorexia:
Body weight is 15 percent below expected BMI range
Intensive fear of becoming fat (psychological)
Body Image: patient thinks she looks fat although they are thin (visual perception)
Cessation of menstruation
Jane was diagnosed as anorexic. Obesity was identified as a contributing factor to her eating disorder.
Jane's parents were made aware of the competition Jane felt towards her sister. And it helped that Jane's mother was supportive and understanding, yet firm with her. Her mother would remind her of about healthy eating habits and even supervised her eating, but not put undue pressure on her.
A combination of behavioural therapy and psychotherapy was used to help Jane overcome her problem. Jane met with a dietician regularly, while psychotherapy helped Jane come to terms with the perception conflicts she experienced.
For Trimmer And Fitter Children!
It is important that educators, parents and coaches are careful how fat-loss issues are approached in children. Children should not be encouraged to go on "crash diets" as these only emphasise unhealthy ways of eating.
Moderation Is The Name Of The Game
A Healthanswers consultant sports physiologist who trains physical education teachers in schools supports moderating the intensity of the exercises for obese children.
He says that overweight children are disadvantaged in activities that require them to support their body mass such as walking, running and jumping. "It may be more appropriate to use cycling, canoeing, rowing or swimming as a mode of exercise than a run or a walk," he adds.
"Also," he notes, "When children are given their choice of physical activity, and when they enjoy the experience, they more likely to change their behaviour by getting more physically active. This love for exercise is more likely to carry over into adulthood."
Finally, bear in mind that children are vulnerable to peer pressure, as well as pressure from parents. While encouraging your children to eat healthy and avoid snacks, it is unwise to put them on restrictive diets. You may just end up teaching the child that the way to deal with obesity is a quick-fix diet.
It is far more important to help children feel that they are in control of their eating. Good eating habits are a gift that will last through the child's lifetime.
Date reviewed: 27 June 2000