Dr. Alanna Hannegraf
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It’s no surprise that the pandemic, quarantine, and the move to distance learning have all led to a surge in child obesity.
According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, rates rose from 13% to 15.4% in a single year, an all-time high. However, there is now a lack of medical training to address this problem. Many pediatricians and general practitioners receive little to no training in treating obesity in adults, let alone children.
Overweight and obesity are difficult diagnoses because the causes and treatments involve many factors. Weight is influenced by a complex interplay of diet, energy expenditure, genetics, sleep, emotions, socio-economic status, culture, hormones, other diseases, drugs and the environment. The good news is that with the help of a knowledgeable health care professional, family support, and lifestyle changes, you can constructively address these health challenges with your children.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, discuss this with your child’s doctor. If your child is diagnosed with overweight or obesity, be sure to de-stigmatize the language you use. For example, telling your child, “You can’t have dessert, you are obese” will inevitably create friction, if not permanent damage. Choose your words carefully; Shaming, bullying, and naming children backfires and can scare them emotionally.
It’s especially important to make sure that treating the disease doesn’t feel like punishment. Conversely, food should not be used as a reward. The Obesity Medicine Association recently updated its guidelines for treating childhood obesity, and one of the most important principles is not to use food as a reward.
Another well-meaning but ultimately destructive practice is the “Clean Plate Club”. Children who are forced to eat everything on their plate will learn to ignore their body’s signals that they are full or even full.
The next step is to look in the mirror. How do you model healthy habits? What is your relationship with food? Do you value sleep and exercise? Often times, the key to changing your children’s habits is changing your own.
With these steps, a constructive conversation with your child could look like this:
Open by asking for permission: Would it be okay to talk about a sensitive topic that the doctor brought up?
Use destigmatizing language and check understanding: The pediatrician said on your last visit that you were obese. What do you know about obesity?
Stay fact-based. The reason I worry is that kids with obesity are at a much higher risk of other problems like high blood pressure, blood sugar, and even cancer. Over time, these diseases can cause stroke, heart attacks, and death.
Check their feelings. Listen. React:It makes me sad to think about yourself getting sick. How do you feel about it?
Drive the point home: I want you to know that the most important thing to me is your health and happiness. This is not about a number on the scale or what you look like.
Offer commitment and support: I want to work on health as a family. What can we do together to eat better, exercise more, and get enough sleep?
Reflect: Thanks for talking to me about this. I heard you say (recap your child’s answers). I can understand where you are from and I am proud of you for opening up. I think we can take things one step at a time. What should our first step be?
With compassion, perseverance, and teamwork, pediatric obesity can be treated. It could even save your child’s life.
Free, engaging ways to exercise with kids
Get started with the Y! If you’re looking for free and fun ways to exercise with your kids, join fellow hikers for the Walk it Off with the Y! Every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. through August 25 at Alton Baker Park. Each week has a different theme including Superhero Day on Wednesday July 21 and the bling it at the end of the summer celebration on August 25th.
Steps for Social Justice: Another program to try out is the free Strides for Social Justice app, which can be downloaded from the iOS or Android app stores. Choose from five routes and learn about the milestones and contributions of local blacks as you explore different Eugene neighborhoods.
Dr. Alanna Hannegraf is a GP with the PeaceHealth Medical Group. PeaceHealth, based in Vancouver, Washington, is a nonprofit Catholic health care system serving communities in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. For more ways to get your healthier life, visit www.peacehealth.org/healthyyou.
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