Most of you know the reason that I got healthy, lost weight and improved my fitness was because I didn’t want my children growing up with a bad role model in me. I didn’t want them to think it was OK to eat junk, and sit in front of the TV. I wanted them to be active and healthy.
Bringing up healthy kids is something I am extremely passionate about. It really upsets me when I see kids walking to school with a fruit shoot and a packet of crisps for breakfast, or stories in the press like the one about the boy who has gone deaf and blind due to his poor nutrition. There was another news report in Scotland where a boy was rushed to hospital, because he had collapsed due to what was termed ‘nutritional failure’. This severely obese boy, was basically being fed to death. This is just as bad as starving a child, but on the face of it, just isn’t always seen that way.
A report in The Sunday Post, about the boy, reflected on how people with eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa trigger help and treatment, due to it being seen as a psychological issue (although,we know there are huge waiting lists for treatments for such disorders), yet children presenting to GPs with health issues that are a symptom of overeating and poor nutrition, aren’t necessarily given the same priority.
And there is no denying that this is malnutrition! Whilst most of us see malnutrition as the vision of 80’s news broadcasts and starving children in Africa, malnutrition actually just means ‘bad nutrition’. It means feeding your body with an imbalanced diet. Whilst it obviously includes being under-nourished, and not getting enough energy into your body, it also includes eating a poor diet, which leaves you unwell.
Whether you have children or not, it is our responsibility to influence the next generation positively. It is our responsibility to guide our young people in the right direction, however you might be connected to them.
There are so many statistics that show childhood obesity is an increasing problem, data that shows children are developing type 2 diabetes, which normally only develops in adults over 40. The Royal College of Paedeatrics and Child Health state that by 2020, 50% of children will be overweight or obese. There are also statistics that show that an overweight or obese child will grow up to be an overweight or obese adult. This is not an imaginary problem, so we have to get in there early, and make sure our kids understand how to fuel their body correctly, understand the correlation between calories in and calories out and what happens if we get that balance wrong.
It is vital for the future of our race, as well as the future of our public services, because these overweight and obese children will grow up to be adults that cost the NHS and local authorities money, due to the service and treatments they will undoutedly need to access.
Then there is the social and emotional side of growing up as an overweight child. Believe me, I know that feeling, all too well. I was regularly teased at primary school by the boys in particular, which led to a feeling of being ugly and unattractive as a teenage girl, to the point where during my GCSE year I started to cut out meals, pretending I wasn’t hungry, and of course I lost weight, but I couldn’t keep it up – I was starving, and not only that – my mum was starting to notice.
Poor self-esteem and low body confidence isn’t uncommon for overweight and obese children and young people. The National Obesity Observatory released a report in 2011, which highlighted that being overweight as a child has an adverse effect on a young person’s self esteem, self-image and self-concept, and there are also associations with depression in adolescents. In fact, the report goes onto say that the health-related quality of life of severely obese children, is on a par to children diagnosed with cancer.
A difficult balance
Personally, as with all things parenting, I find it is difficult to strike a good balance around body image. You want them to be body confident, whatever their size and shape, and feel comfortable in their skin, but equally you want them to be healthy, and not put their health at risk by being overweight.
When Ruby, my eldest, was weaned and entering toddlerhood, I was paranoid about not feeding her junk food and keeping her a healthy weight. Terrified in all honesty, that she would turn into the same child I did, and experience what I experienced. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t tormented day in, day out, but what I felt as a child was enough to make me want to ensure my daughter didn’t feel the same. And then one night when we were getting her ready for bed, when she was about 7, she said to me, ‘Mum I’m fat!’ It was like someone had stabbed me in the heart. I felt sick. Because first and foremost she wasn’t, she was a perfectly healthy weight, but like her dad and me, carried a little bit of weight on her tummy, at times. This hadn’t come from other children either – it was from herself. Now whether that came from things she had picked up from me, or from elsewhere I don’t know, but it made me realise we have to be so careful about how we speak about ourselves and others, and what we expose our children to in the media.
So started the conversation about how she was beautiful just the way she was, but it is important to eat a healthy diet, and eat foods in the right portion sizes to ensure that we don’t put too much weight on, because it can be bad for our health. How we must eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and have junk food as a treat.
I tell her every day that she is beautiful, and hope and pray that this translates into a positive body image as she hits the difficult teenage years, and all that brings with it these days, with social media, filters that augment our faces into something unrecognisable, and everybody’s desire to live and display their ‘best life’. We talk regularly at the dinner table about where our food comes from, and what it does for our bodies. We have regular discussions about what a healthy choice might be, and how we shouldn’t have too many treats.
Ruby has always managed to maintain a healthy weight, and is now very active, dancing up to 7 hours a week, and I feel she has a good relationship with food. We do have to have conversations at times, about the amount of junk she wants to eat- particularly cake! I think she gets that from me! But that’s my job as her Mum. It’s my responsibility. Whilst she thinks I am mean for saying ‘no’ to the pack of donuts, ‘just because’, or the enormous adult size pudding to herself, when we go out for a meal, I know it’s the right thing to do, and she soon gets over it.
My son Seth, on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. This boy must have hollow legs, because I honestly cannot fill him at times. It has been a real battle to keep him a healthy weight. He is a big solid boy, and probably is actually a little bit overweight for his height. He has already experienced some name calling at school, in the last 12 months and he’s only 7. The first time he told me that other children were calling him the dreaded ‘F-word’, I was gutted. That word when it is used to describe a person, is like a punch to the stomach for me – I hate it. The thought that my handsome boy was being made to feel unhappy by other children because of his size, broke my heart.
So again began the conversation about how we manage our weight and how it isn’t healthy to be too heavy. It would be all too easy to tell him to ignore them, and he was perfect the way he was. But, I had to be honest with him, whilst I didn’t agree with what those children had said, I made sure he understood that even though I think he is the most handsome boy in the world, I help him to keep his weight in a healthy range by restricting the amount of junk he eats. I explained that when I tell him to have a piece of fruit instead of a packet of crisps or a chocolate biscuit, or to drink water when he complains he is still hungry for the 5th time that hour, that it is because I want him to stay strong, fit and a healthy weight.
He is yet to find his love of a particular sport, having tried football, where he just stood in the middle of the pitch, chatting, for the entire training session. He fancied boxing and rugby until he realised he might get hurt, so that was soon discounted. But there is an interest in BMXing and skateboarding developing, which I am more than relieved about. And if it means I have to chase him the mile up to school every morning in the pouring rain, as he cycles up on his bike, to foster that interest, then I will crack on. Because that is my responsibility!
Stopping the vicious circle
We often have members attend our groups who bring their children along, and they want to stand on the scales, or even more occasionally, want to go on a diet. There has been a few times when parents have asked for a diet sheet for their teenage daughter. And whilst I think it is good that we normalise weighing ourselves, and not feeling frightened of what the scales say, acknowledging what it says and dealing with it, I would never give a child a diet sheet. For children and particularly teenagers, it is 100% better that they learn while they are young, the concept of calories in and calories out, and how to fuel their body properly. It’s a life skill and once it is learned you know it forever.
To give a teenager a diet sheet, puts them into that cycle of dieting, not dieting, losing weight, gaining weight, and for all the misery that the majority of us knows that causes. Why would we force that onto our children? That is why it is our responsibility to teach the next generation, in whatever form our interactions are with them, whether you are a parent, a teacher, a friend or neighbour, how to manage their weight in a healthy way, how to get the balance right between enjoying our food, and our lives, but to above all to stay healthy and active.
Think about how you speak about yourself, your body image and how you describe your foods, in front of the children in your life. Be mindful of how you might be influencing young minds. This goes beyond what we feed our children, it is how our whole attitude is impressed upon their developing belief systems. Most of all, if you can’t do it for yourself, be the best version of yourself and be responsible to the next generation, so they don’t grow up with the experiences and problems that we do.