HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Obesity and poverty: a physician's perspective

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By Connie Matthiessen

Talking about weight

Kids who are overweight face a lot of teasing and bullying in school. How should parents talk about how to treat kids with weight issues? Should they point out the connection between poverty and weight?

Teasing and bullying is a huge issue for kids with weight issues. Some of my patients are so ashamed that they don't even want to tell me about the bullying they face at school, and they don't tell their parents.

There's research showing that kids who are overweight get shunned more than kids with other disabilities. One study, for example, found that when kids were  picked for games, obese children were picked last, after the child with the cleft palate or the child in a wheelchair. This indicates that kids are getting the message that you should have empathy for children with disabilities, but not for kids struggling with weight issues.

I think it's important for parents to talk to kids about weight, and how you treat kids with weight issues, but how you talk about it depends on the child's age. I don't think parents should raise the poverty issue with young children, because this could confuse them. When kids are in high school, yes, I think it's important to educate kids about all kinds of social inequities.

With younger kids, I think it's better to keep it general. Parents need to explain that everyone is different, and that this is okay. If a child says something negative about an overweight child, it's important for parents to convey the message that the overweight child is a special, wonderful child in his or her own way. The parent can ask, "I wonder how that child feels about everyone picking on him? How would you feel if you were in that situation?" The same way you would talk to your child about how it might feel to be in a wheelchair.

I want all kids to get the message that they can feel good about themselves and good about their bodies. Even if someone has tried to shame them, I want them to have the confidence to still feel good about themselves.

It's important for parents and teachers to talk to their own children and to students about ways they think they are great. Every child needs to find at least one thing she thinks is great about herself — something that has nothing to do with how she looks. What's important is what's inside you, how you act toward other people, how you work and play. Educators talk about this when addressing issues of skin color. It would be great if we could do this about diversity of body type, too. Because once your community is accepting, it's much easier to make a positive change. It's really hard to change if you feel badly about yourself.

I see more teachers talking about nutrition and healthy food, and I think they can have an important impact. Just like the issue of seat belts: kids hear all the time that it's important to buckle up, and they get it, they point it out if an adult is driving without a seat belt.  This is beginning to happen with nutrition and food issues. These ideas are percolating through the general culture. Educators can play a huge role in decisions kids will make later on.

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.