Why You Shouldn’t Try to Control Your Kids’ Weight
I was horrified a couple of weeks ago to read an article in Slate called “The Last Thing Fat Kids Need” because it was the first time I’d heard about overweight kids being taken away from their parents. The case in question happened in England, but it’s also happened in Ohio and South Carolina. And when the kids were taken away, it wasn’t for any reason except their weight.
As the article states: “These parents loved their children. But they could not make them thin. So they lost them.”
The problem is, the decision was made under a false assumption, which is that parents can easily change their children’s weight. But I have yet to hear a single instance when this is the case, and many times, the focus on weight backfires.
Many factors outside a parent’s control
It’s so tempting to think that sending a kid to WW and encouraging them to exercise is all it takes to get them to lose weight, but I know from personal experience that doesn’t work. My parents tried it with me, and although I initially lost weight, I ended up gaining it back plus some.
It’s also easy to focus on the calories in, calories out metric. That’s nice and simple and easy to understand. Unfortunately, the caloric approach ignores so many things, including the very complicated effect of genetics.
As the article noted, a report by the British government pointed out that our weight is impacted by over 100 genetic factors, and those factors interconnect in more than 300 ways. Those genes aren’t impressed by diets or fitness trackers.
Then you throw in things like the problems of food deserts, food insecurity, lack of affordable healthcare, and limited access to safe places outdoors. Additionally, the way our bodies handle stress, trauma, and oppression can impact our weight and overall health even when we’re trying to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible.
Attempts at control go wrong
And let’s not forget what actually happens when parents focus so much on weight, none of which is good.
One side effect is that it encourages kids to develop disordered eating habits that include sneaking food, eating for emotional reasons, and eating as fast as possible to avoid being caught in the act.
That’s what happened with me, and I’m not alone. The article notes that this is also supported by research, that kids on diets “are more likely to sneak food and binge-eat both while on the diet and in the long term.”
Then consider how diets don’t work for the vast majority of people, and how they contribute to weight cycling. As in my experience, any weight kids initially lose is usually gained back, with some extra on top of it. The result is that these kids, like me, often end up weighing more than they would have if they hadn’t tried dieting.
And this all puts a huge strain on the relationship between the kids and their parents. I deeply resented how my weight and eating were such a factor in discussions with my mom, and I was furious at both my parents for being told to go to WW (then Weight Watchers).
The weight focus also contributes to negative self-esteem in adolescents. I felt terrible about myself and hated my large body, and it took a long time to overcome that. Or I should say, most of that – I’m sure remnants of that shame still linger.
Finally, talking about weight loss also continues to keep the focus on weight and makes it seem like weight stigma is acceptable, even though it’s not.
What to focus on instead
As a fat teenager, I mostly wished that everyone would ignore my weight and accept me as I was.
The article also suggests something that I hadn’t heard of before, which is to help kids experience “felt safety.”
Kids who have this experience trust that their environment and caregivers are safe and secure, and they can be more focused and respond rather than react to situations. Kids who don’t experience this, on the other hand, will unconsciously feel like they’re in constant danger and may react more extremely or inappropriately to different situations.
And as Katja Rowell, a feeding specialist and family doctor, pointed out, “Experiencing felt safety is healthier for your heart than eating more vegetables.”
This seems like a radical concept, but it makes sense to me. And being in a home where your body and eating aren’t constantly under scrutiny will contribute much more to felt safety than the opposite.
Parents aren’t the problem
As tempting as it is to blame parents for their kids being fat, it’s not in their control. Additionally, it’s unclear what health implications truly exist for overweight kids. And the fact that dieting often leads to ultimate weight gain and disordered eating shows that the weight focus doesn’t help.
Instead, do what you can to make your kids feel loved, safe, and accepted as they are. You’ll have a better relationship with them, and they’ll likely be healthier in the long run.