Sunday, April 29, 2012

They Are Always Watching and Listening

I have written in the past about coaches telling kids that they need to get bigger and stronger but fail to follow up those suggestions with details on how to get bigger and stronger.

As I stated in that article I am not using this as an opportunity to criticize coaches because even they would acknowledge they are not qualified to dispense sound nutritional advice to their athletes.  That said if a coach or parent is going to make a comment that a child needs to get bigger or even to lose weight they must be prepared to follow that up with wise and intelligent advice.  And if they don’t have the answer they should be prepared to provide a resource that can.

I am always concerned that a child can take a comment like this the wrong way and life at that age is confusing enough without tossing ill-advised suggestions their way.  What may seem to be a constructive comment may actually have unintended consequences.  For example a young athlete is advised to “get bigger” without getting any advice to do so and heads off to the local supplement shop to get advice from a salesperson…not a good first step!

What of the young lady that is told she needs to slim down for her next gymnastics competition but again is not advised how to do so.  Though it’s frightening to consider this that child may severely restrict food intake because she thinks she’s “fat.”

Kids are always listening to us and look up to us whether we realize it or not.  Several years ago my nephew (6 years old at the time) asked me why I would not eat any pizza and soda and I said because it’s bad for you.  Needless to say he repeated this to his mother when he wouldn’t eat his pizza and the comment was traced back to me and she read me the riot act, which I deserved.  While I didn’t think anything of my comment at the time when his mother called I immediately knew the mistake I had made.  When it comes to youth nutrition no food should be labeled bad.   The better approach would have been for me to say:  “I would rather have an apple and some almonds because I like that better than pizza.”

With this approach I haven’t confused him and have demonstrated with my actions that when it comes to food selection you have choices (also keeps my sister-in-law in good spirits).  Making better food choices is a process that takes time but the key is to be consistent with your own food choices because remember, kids ultimately get their cues from us.

Along these lines what about a school wide obesity prevention program?  With nearly 1 out of 3 children in the United States overweight or obese this seems like a needed step.  However, A new report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health examined the possible association between school-based childhood obesity prevention programs and an increase in eating disorders among young children and adolescents.

The Poll asked parents about obesity prevention programs in their children’s schools and about food-related behaviors and activity that may be worrisome.

Overall, 82 percent of parents of children age 6-14 report at least one school-based childhood obesity intervention program taking place in their child’s school. Among these programs are nutrition education, limits on sweets or “junk food” in the classroom, height and weight measurements, and incentives for physical activity.

Additionally, 7 percent of parents report that their children have been made to feel bad at school about what or how much they were eating.

 This same group of parents was also asked about their children’s eating behaviors.

Thirty percent of parents of 6-14 year-olds report at least one behavior in their children that could be associated with the development of an eating disorder. These behaviors include inappropriate dieting, excessive worry about fat in foods, being preoccupied with food content or labels, refusing family meals, and having too much physical activity.

“The issue of childhood obesity is a serious problem. In order to intervene in what seems like an epidemic of childhood obesity, everyone needs to be involved,” says David Rosen, M.D., M.P.H., Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and Chief of Teenage and Young Adult Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics.

However, Rosen says, “When obesity interventions are put in place without understanding how they work and what the risks are, there can be unintended consequences. Well-intentioned efforts can go awry when children misinterpret the information they’re given.

“Many of these behaviors are often dismissed as a phase,” says Rosen, “But given what we know about the association of these behaviors with the development of eating disorders and knowing that eating disorders are increasing in prevalence, they should be taken very seriously.”

The fact that 30% of parents report at least one worrisome eating behavior in their children is concerning.

“It’s much better and safer for parents to respond to worrisome eating behaviors early – even if there turns out to be no problem – than to wait until there is obviously a big problem,’ Rosen says. “It is much easier to prevent an eating disorder than it is to treat an eating disorder.”

Rosen offers these suggestions for parents:

·      Be attentive to your children’s eating habits. If you see behaviors that are worrisome to you, talk to your children about them. If the behaviors escalate, involve your child’s doctor.
·      Find out what your children’s schools are doing to prevent childhood obesity.
·      Be involved and engaged in that process.
·      Ask your children if they’re being teased at school about their food choices or their weight. If they are, go to the school and find out what is happening.  *

While I think school wide programs like those suggested in the above report are noble in nature it seems to be a bit of an overreach to me.  I started teaching an athletic development class at a public school last fall and on the first day I asked the children why they signed up for the class?  Several children said they took the class to exercise so they won’t become obese…

I was a little dumbfounded that 3RD and 4TH graders had this word in their vocabulary.  I am not na├»ve and obesity is not something to take lightly in fact it has become even more costly to America’s health than smoking.  But it seems like too much attention is paid to the problem and not enough to the solutions.  Rather than scare tactics let’s promote the benefits and fun of free play and school wide programs that have the potential to have lifelong impacts such as growing a school garden with the help of local farmers.  Some schools are even partnering with local farms not only to provide fresh food for school lunches but also field trips to show kids where their food comes from.

It is my strong belief that as parents, teachers and coaches the most effective steps we can take to resolve the youth obesity crisis or more appropriately the childhood inactivity, play deprived and over-fed, undernourished crisis is to model the behavior consistently that we expect of them.  They are watching and they are listening, closely.

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