A weighty issue doesn't need to be about fat

Dr. Joanna McMillan.
Dr. Joanna McMillan. 

How do we encourage our children to eat healthily and move more, without mentioning the word 'fat'?

A mother recently came to me concerned because her six-year-old daughter had called herself fat. The very next day a gorgeous 10 year old girl I know asked me if I could give her a diet to help her get rid of the miniscule centimetre of fat she could pinch on her tummy. Clearly young girls in particular, although the impact on boys is following suit, are learning very early in life that they ‘should’ look a certain way.

The bombardment of beautiful bodies in music videos, in magazines and on TV makes it impossible for us to shelter our kids from these images. But we can teach them that this is not the norm, and neither is it equated with beauty. The concern I hear from parents is how on earth can I teach my child to eat healthily and move more, without it being about how fat or skinny you are?

The first thing to realise is that we MUST talk to our kids about healthy lifestyles. The bottom line is far more of our kids are affected by being overweight or obese, than eating disorders. Yet parents fear the latter far more. We need to keep perspective and remember that teaching them about healthy eating and the importance of movement is all part and parcel of them learning the life skills they need … just as you teach them why they need to brush their teeth, and how to do it correctly.

When I’m talking to adults about these issues I stress to them that this is not just about weight control. Clearly that’s part of it, but to me being over (or under) weight is just one symptom of having your diet and lifestyle out of whack. Sort out the underlying problems and your weight starts to take care of itself. We can therefore take the same approach with kids. Teach them that they need to eat healthy foods and move everyday not because that will stop them getting fat, but because that is what their bodies need to work and grow properly, for their brain to work at it’s peak and for them to feel fantastic and be able to give 100% to their schoolwork, playtime and after school activities including sport. Take the weight issue completely away from the discussion unless they bring it up. And then yes of course you discuss it directly with them at that point.

With my own kids (two boys now 5 and 7) I have always discussed how food affects the way they feel and how their body functions. We have had brain food, bottom food, muscle food etc since they were very small. As they have grown our discussions have become more detailed. For example with my eldest son, we have gone from eating red meat to give us iron, to discussing iron, haemoglobin and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients around the body.  

By making your kids interested in nutrition rather than ‘diets’ you have their mindset in the right place. The same goes for movement. I talk with my kids about why it’s important for their body to move – and this is never anything to do with burning fat or weight control. It’s simple about having a healthy body that works.

If your child does raise the ‘fat’ issue with you, my advice is to remain factual. If they are overweight you can talk frankly with them about what can help, but you must take care to take the emotions out of the discussion. If they are not overweight you need to stress the healthy body aspect. For all kids the crucial factor is to boost their self-esteem and maintain a healthy body image.

Realising that the bodies they see in a magazine are not average, are often photo-shopped and are actually not all that healthy is a good first step. Focusing on what their body can do – run fast, cycle hard, think well in class – is a more positive outlook that will last them until they’re adults.

Above all make sure you are practicing what you preach. If they hear you dissing your own body, sitting on the sofa at night eating chips and drinking cola then they are just going to do the same thing. Make this a family affair and you’ll all end up in a better place mentally and physically.

Read more about raising a healthy family on Dr Joanna's website.