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Are you a role model to someone?
Most of you know the reason that I got healthy, lost weight and improved my fitness was that after the birth of my first child I realised that I didn’t want my children growing up with a poor role model in me. I didn’t want them to think it was OK to live off junk food, drink too much and sit in front of the TV. I wanted them to be active and healthy with a healthy relationship with food and their own bodies.
Bringing up healthy kids is something I am extremely passionate about. It really upsets me when I see kids walking to school with a bottle of fizzy pop and a packet of crisps for breakfast, or stories in the press like the one a few years ago about the boy who had gone deaf and blind due to his poor diet. There was another news report around the same time, where a boy in Scotland 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. In my opinion, this is just as bad as starving a child, but on the face of it, do the majority of people actually see it 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 still 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 in my opinion, there is no denying that this is ‘malnutrition’. Whilst most of us associate malnutrition with the vision of 80’s news broadcasts and starving children in Africa, ‘malnutrition’ actually means ‘bad nutrition’. It means feeding your body with an imbalanced diet. This obviously includes being under-nourished and not getting enough energy into your body, but it also includes eating a poor diet, which leaves you unwell.
There are so many statistics that show childhood obesity is an increasing problem. Data that shows children are developing type 2 diabetes, a disease which historically only developed in adults over 40.
A UK Parliament report tells us that in 2006-7 school year 18% of primary school leavers were overweight or obese. In 2019-20 this figure had almost doubled to 35% of all year six pupils.
The Covid-19 Pandemic only served to make that much worse with children being forced to stay indoors and school at the kitchen table or in their bedrooms, their social lives restricted to online gaming and snapchat, and many reporting a typical lockdown day meant that they didn’t even leave the house, despite allowances for outdoor exercise. The result? Overweight and obesity levels for year 6 children (10 and 11 year olds) reached over 40% post-pandemic.
Where could we be in another 10 years? The thought is terrifying!
There are also statistics that show that an overweight or obese child will be more likely to grow up to be an overweight or obese adult. This is not an imaginary problem, it is backed by scientific evidence, so if we are to put a halt to this epidemic, we have to get in there early, and make sure our kids understand how to fuel their bodies correctly, understand the correlation between calories in and calories out and what happens if we get that balance wrong. And whilst school has a role to play in this, the real onus lies with parents and other caregivers in their lives to model a healthy way to live.
Then there is the social and emotional side of growing up as an overweight child. And this, if I am being honest, is what I am really passionate about.
I know the feeling, all too well, of being the fat kid – you maybe do too. 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, never confident enough to ask a boy out, permanently embarrassed if someone even looked my way and hiding away in oversized clothes, to cover my tummy and legs. During my GCSE years I started to cut out meals, pretending I wasn’t hungry. 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. Luckily for me, common sense took over, before any psychological issues developed and I did start to eat properly again.
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 quite worryingly, that the health-related quality of life for severely obese children, is on a par to children diagnosed with cancer.
Striking the balance
As with all things parenting, we have to try and strike a balance.
But, I find it is difficult to strike that balance when it comes to body image. You want your kids to be body confident, whatever their size and shape, and feel comfortable in their skin, we all should feel that way!! But equally you want them to be healthy, and not put their health at risk by being too heavy.
When Ruby, my eldest, was weaned and entering toddlerhood, I was totally 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 and experienced as a child was enough to make me want to ensure my daughter was never made to feel the same.
Then one night 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 I, carried a little bit of weight on her tummy at times. This opinion hadn’t come from other children either – it was from herself. Now whether the root of 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 that can be bad for our health. How we must eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and have junk food as a real treat.
She’s now slap bang in the middle of the teenage years, and I tell her every day that she is beautiful, and hope and pray that this translates into a positive body image. We have definitely had our issues, particularly now that she has access to social media, with snapchat filters that augment our faces into something unrecognisable, and everybody’s desire to live and display their ‘best Insta-life’. We talk regularly as a family, 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. One particular time when I had to remind her that 4 twin packs of Kinder Bueno’s in a day, wasn’t perhaps the best choice nutritionally, her immediate response was ‘But I won’t get fat, I am always at dance!’. She probably had a point, she trained 2-3 hours, 6 days a week at the time, but I had to remind her how we can’t outrun a bad diet and regardless of energy balance, there was absolutely no nutritional benefit to eating that many chocolate bars in one sitting – let alone what her orthodontist might say!
It’s our responsibility
As her Mum it’s my responsibility to say ‘no’ and guide her towards making better choices. Whilst she thinks I am mean for curbing the ‘Bueno Addiction’ and restricting her to a couple a week, I know it’s the right thing to do, and after a bit of eye rolling, and grumbling under her breath she 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 – ever! I am fighting a losing battle to keep him a healthy weight. He is a big solid boy, and is overweight for his height. He has already experienced some name calling at school at primary school. The first time he told me that other children were calling him the dreaded ‘F-word’, I was gutted – like a punch to the stomach. The thought that my handsome boy was being made to feel unhappy by other children because of his size, broke my heart.
So every time this comes up (and it comes up more frequently than I would like, sadly) we have 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 have to be honest with him, whilst I don’t agree with what these children say, I have to make sure he understands that even though I think he is the most handsome boy in the world, I help him to try and keep his weight in a healthy range by restricting the amount of junk he eats, and keeping his portions the right size for him. I explain that when I tell him to have a piece of fruit instead of a packet of crisps or a chocolate biscuit, or to get a drink of 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.
We all regularly step on the scales in front of each other, to keep a check on our weight, in a bid to keep a healthy relationship with the numbers we see, and to not worry too much about what it says. We don’t react when we see the number on the scales, there’s no emotion – we are just checking the stats. And while Seth is definitely heavier than he should be, there is no blatant and outward focus on weight loss for him, we are just keeping an eye on the numbers. After times of indulgence like Christmas, holidays and birthdays, the whole family ‘pulls it back a bit’ and reduces our portion sizes and fills our plates with vegetables and salad over potatoes and pasta, or garlic bread (Seth’s favourite!). We are not on a diet, we are just redressing the balance of our over indulgence. And I hope that this translates into a healthier relationship with food, than furthering the ‘diet – binge cycle’ that so many of us are trapped in.
Stopping the vicious diet cycle
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 EVER give a child a diet sheet. For children and particularly teenagers, it is 1000% 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, where they only eat a certain set of meals for a period of time ,until they lose some weight, puts them straight into that vicious 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 misery onto our children? Why don’t we just teach them how to manage it from a young age – keeping it real and scientific – about how to keeps ourselves healthy and strong. Take the emotion out of it that we feel, and stick to the facts, so that they grow up just dealing with the facts and none of the neuroses that we have picked up along the way.
It is our responsibility to teach the next generation, in whatever form our interactions are with them, whether you are a parent, auntie, uncle, teacher, friend or neighbour; how to manage weight in a healthy way, how to get the balance right between enjoying our food, and our lives, to have a healthy relationship with the weighing scales and above all to stay healthy and active. It is our responsibility to exemplify the life that we want for the next generation.
Think about how you speak about yourself, your body image and how you describe your foods, in front of the children in your life. How do you describe yourself or talk about your habits and behaviours. 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. Kids are like sponges, they absorb everything around them, without us even realising. How many times has a child in your life repeated something back to you, that you had no idea they were paying any attention to.
Most of all, if you can’t do this for you, be the best version of yourself by being responsible for the next generation, so that they don’t grow up with the experiences that we had and problems that we now have as a result of our past. Let them grow up feeling happy, healthy, content and most of all in control of their lifestyle.