Dr RUTH: weight problems
You are right to think carefully before intervening. Both boys and girls are heavily influenced by the media and social expectations in relation to body image and this is leading to increasing numbers of young children developing poor food habits and in extreme cases eating disorders. At the same time, obesity is a serious issue which has negative health and psychological implications.
There are many reasons why children become overweight, but most commonly it is a simple imbalance between the number of calories taken in and the amount of energy expended through either metabolism or physical activity. A starting point would be to consider these two factors with your son and decide together on an appropriate course of action.
Restrictive dieting is not advisable for children as it encourages an inappropriate relationships with food. Rather than tackling your son’s worries as a problem of appearance or being ‘over weight’, try to frame it as a health issue. Instead of aiming for weight loss, aim for better eating habits and a healthier lifestyle. Help him to learn about food and nutrition so that he can make informed healthy choices. Why not plan and cook a healthy meal together one or more nights a week?
Also consider how much food you are putting on his plate at meal times and your expectations around this. In order to manage his food intake appropriately your son needs to be able to recognise and respond to his own body’s feelings of hunger and being full, so let him serve himself at table and rather than praising him for having a clean plate, encourage him to stop eating when he is full.
How much time does your son spend computer gaming or watching TV? Low energy expenditure combined with the high calorie snacks that often accompany these activities can all lead to increased body weight. Discuss with your son what sports or activities he is interested in doing. Remember he is more likely to keep it up if his choice is fun or involves other people. Is there a sport or club you could join together to support and encourage one another? Doing activities as a family has been found to improve the chances of them being sustained in the long run.
Adding a cognitive element to these strategies is also important in establishing and maintaining a healthy body weight. Help your son to consider his eating habits. Are there certain times of the day when he is snacking? Does he walk through the door after school and pick up a packet of crisps? Does he skip breakfast and end up hungry and overeating at other times of day? Help him to identify and analyse these patterns and support him in any changes he decides to make, for example by having a stock of healthy food that he likes for when he gets in in the evening.
In addition to these biological approaches, it is also worth considering psychological reasons for over-eating. Is your son using food as comfort or because he is anxious or distressed? Habits such as buying your son a chocolate bar to reward him for a good grade or to console him because something has upset him can set up a pattern of behaviour that takes food away from being source of nutrition and turns it into a psychological support. Talk to your son and find out if something is bothering him. If overeating is a symptom of a different problem, tackling the real problem may solve the eating issues too.
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