Children's Health Nutrition

The ‘F’ word

The ‘F’ Word

How many times have you looked in the mirror and said with a frown, “I look so fat!”

Or to put it another way, how many times has your child heard you use those words?

Thanks to Hollywood and the media, most of us have an exaggerated image of how we should appear—emaciated—a look that’s tough to achieve without starving ourselves or exercising to excess.

Yet on the flip side, it’s also a fact that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese—and many of our kids are following in our footsteps. According to the National Institutes of Health, over the past 30 years, obesity in 2- to 5-year-olds has doubled, and in 6- to 19-year-olds, it has tripled, with about 17 percent of our kids diagnosed as clinically obese.

So how do you find a happy balance? My approach has been to show my kids that I love them for their heart, not what they look like. But I also want to demonstrate that healthy habits are important too. Not for looks, but so that they can feel good, be healthy and be able to do the things they want to do physically.

But finding the right words is definitely easier said than done. Who hasn’t innocently asked a teenage girl, “Have you exercised today?” only to have her dissolve into tears? It can be a struggle to have this talk with your children, but remember that sometimes you can say a lot without using words at all. Here’s what I mean:

Instead of saying: “No more TV; you have to go run outside every day!”

Do this: Just go outside and play as a family.

As much as your kids love their TV and their games, they probably would most love to spend more time with you. So don’t make a big deal out of it, but after dinner, start a habit of taking a walk together around the neighborhood. When you’re on vacation, rent some bikes and go exploring. Take advantage of the local pool and spend an afternoon swimming. Begin to make healthy activity a part of your family’s lifestyle, and it will soon become a habit that everyone will enjoy.

Instead of saying: “No more candy/white bread/soda!”

Do this: Fill your pantry and refrigerator with healthy choices.

As the parent, you pretty much control what your child eats—at least until he or she is old enough to drive. So make sure to model the right behavior, and make it easy by stocking your kitchen with good food choices. Not sure where to start? The basics include complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread and pasta; plenty of fruits and vegetables; and lean meats. And instead of candy or chips, have healthy snacks available, like yogurt, cheese sticks, nuts, fresh sliced fruit, or veggies and dip.

Does your child love juice or soda? Read the label and you’re sure to cringe: A 12-ounce serving (that’s just a cup and a half) has about 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar and 150 to 200 calories. If your child (or you) drinks just one juice box or soda every day, you can expect to gain a pound every three weeks (math doesn’t lie). Ready to put down the can? Swap it out with plenty of water. You can also ease into it with diluted juice or try topping off your water with slices of lemon or strawberries to add some refreshing flavor.

Another tip? Kids love to help you shop and cook. So have them come with you to the grocery store or farmer’s market to pick out their fruits and vegetables. And then come home, put on a special apron so they can help prep them for dinner or snacks. It’s a fact: They’ll be more likely to eat them.

At school, where you don’t control the pantry, help your kids make good choices by reviewing the menu each week and deciding which options to eat. You can also send lunch or healthier sides with your child on days when options are limited.

Instead of saying: “You’re so beautiful.”

Do this: Compliment your child for themselves, not just the way they look.

Of course all moms are going to tell their children they’re beautiful. We can’t help it; we’re programmed that way. But as much as you can, compliment them too on the compassionate things they do, on their intelligence and on the good decisions they make. That way, you can help combat all the other messaging they’re going to receive from the world around them about the importance of looks.

Instead of saying: “You have to eat broccoli!”

Do this: Give it 10 tries.

Even if your child insists that he or she doesn’t like broccoli or another fruit or vegetable, keep trying. They don’t have to finish it, but do ask them to taste it. The thinking is that eventually you’ll wear them down! Or, in other words, kids’ tastes change, so you may be pleasantly surprised to find one day that broccoli isn’t quite so bad.

Also, and this is important: If they want seconds, make sure it’s fruit, vegetables or healthy meats, not starches. After all, if your child demanded a second serving of dessert, would you give it to them? This is training, and it’s important to teach your child to reach for the healthy options.

Instead of saying: “You’re fat.” (or even “I’m fat.”)

Do this: If needed, have a sit-down talk about changes.

Please, just don’t use the “f” word—not to your child, your spouse or about other people you encounter in your day-to-day lives. Your child picks up on these verbal cues, which once again emphasize looks over health. But if your child is struggling with a weight issue that’s affecting them socially, physically and emotionally, it might be time to sit down with your child in a loving way to talk through making healthier choices to feel better. I know, it’s tough, but the struggle is a good sign: It means that you’re really thinking of the best way to talk to your child in a kind way about this very sensitive topic.

Instead of saying: “You have to make changes.”

Do this: Make changes together.

It’s not fair to say that so-and-so can eat this, but you can’t. I’ve had friends whose child is gluten sensitive and the whole family has gone gluten free. You have to do that. As a family, you’re a team, and being healthy is a family commitment.

Time for a Check-up?
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About the author

Kathryn Strickler McLeod, MD

Pediatric General and Adolescent Medicine