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Raising a body confident child

Family Health Parenting

A while back I wrote a post about teaching your child body positivity. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for prevention of obesity and eating disorders in adolescents, and I was so excited to see that the new guidelines go hand in hand with the points I discussed in that post.

By relating health to weight, previous guidelines encouraged a focus on diet and exercise as a way to combat childhood obesity, suggesting low calorie diets, diet pills or even surgery for teens with a higher BMI. The problem with these suggestions are that they create a perfect storm of eating disorders, poor body image and obesity. Wait, obesity? I thought you said the suggestions were for losing weight? Yes I did. The problem is that dieting increases the risk of obesity two to three times. People who go on a diet are also almost twice as likely to develop a binge eating disorder, than non-dieters. 

So what does this all mean for us as parents? It means that we need to stop talking about weight as the predictor of good health. It means that we need to stop talking about dieting, or exercising for weight loss and instead focus on a sense of well being (physical AND mental) in order to help our children grow into confident, strong and healthy adolescents and then adults. Here are four ways we can do that:

  1. Discourage dieting: One study showed that teens that severely restrict their calories or skip meals are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. 18 times!!! If you are a more "moderate" dieter, your risk drops to 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than a non dieter. Even if no one is actively dieting in your household, children and adolescents are sold dieting everywhere they turn. Make it an ongoing discussion in your house that our bodies need fuel and adequate calories to function.

  2. Eat together: Studies show that regular family meals will result in a smaller risk of obesity and eating disorders. It gives you a chance to connect with your child, model healthy eating behaviors and tune into any issues that might be emerging in your child's life. We wrote a whole post on the benefits of eating together as a family. You can read that post here!

  3. Stop talking about weight: Comments about a child's weight (whether well-meaning or teasing) from family members or peers are all predictors of eating disorders and eventual weight gain. It's important to remember that your child will also internalize your comments about yourself, or people you see on TV or in the grocery store. So while comments directed to the child are very damaging, it's not the only way they can get a distorted message. Instead, talk about how we like to feel healthy and strong (which really doesn't have anything to do with your weight or shape). Talk about all the positive aspects of your child, that has absolutely nothing to do with his or her appearance.

  4. Model Self-loveBody dissatisfaction is a well-known risk factor for eating disorders, unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and reduced physical activity. I left this point to last, but it really is the most important one. The biggest reason that anyone decides to go on a diet, or engage in restrictive behaviors, is that they are not happy with their body or themselves. If we can show our kids that loving ourselves, just the way we are, is not only okay - but essential, we will have come a long way of stopping the generations of disordered thinking around ourselves and our bodies. We were not all meant to look the same (as determined by a society who changes its standards all the time). Anytime you hear anyone criticize someone's appearance, use this mantra: All bodies are good bodies. This will go a long way to teaching your child that their body is amazing, regardless of its size or shape.
I feel so passionately about this because I think that some disordered behaviors that we have deemed "healthy" has worked their way into our families, and it is causing some serious damage to our young ones. Bring the focus to engaging in physical activity because we love it, and it makes us feel good, not because it's a chore or will change our appearance (and it doesn't have to be a structured exercise routine, any activity where you move your body while having fun counts). Show your child that our bodies naturally want balance. Offer a wide range of nutritious foods and don't demonize any food that you don't feel fits the bill, because those can serve a purpose too. It's the balance we seek. 

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