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Spotlight on Walden // Sep 17, 2012

Overcoming Childhood Obesity

Dr. Tiffany Rush-Wilson, who specializes in eating disorders and eating behaviors, sees a perfect storm: Americans are stressed, eating too much, and exercising too little. She finds the rising rate of childhood obesity especially alarming.

The Walden University faculty member and skills development coordinator for the MS in Mental Health Counseling program knows diabetes, hypertension, and sleeping problems are all associated with excess weight. Today, she says, “There are research findings that support if children are over age 12, their life expectancy isn’t necessarily greater than their parents’, and the primary factor is the obesity rate.”

Why is this happening? Dr. Rush-Wilson says, “The adult obesity rate is astronomical now, so a parent’s own weight might be a factor. We’ve normalized being overweight.”

But that’s far from the only reason. She notes that family members may equate food with love and also encourage leaving a “clean plate.” Or, they may not understand appropriate portion sizes for children, who can overlook the body’s cue to stop eating when they’re full. Parents may also be too busy to prepare nutritious meals or believe healthful foods are too expensive. Other factors include readily available processed foods and different cultural views of weight. Sometimes, parents simply don’t recognize a child’s weight problem, or they choose to ignore it.

Dr. Rush-Wilson believes it’s possible to take steps to improve children’s eating practices and wellness:

Focus on health, not weight. It’s important to notice a child’s weight, but Dr. Rush-Wilson adds,“If you don’t want to openly discuss your child’s weight with them, talk about being active. Say you’ve noticed your child is moving slowly now or growing out of clothes more quickly. Adults can express concern without hurting a child’s feelings.”

Encourage physical activity. Public schools are cutting physical education classes, but parents can still help overweight children become more active. Dr. Rush-Wilson suggests enrolling a child in a favorite sports activity. If that’s too costly, encourage walking or running instead.

Expose children to the right foods. Dr. Rush-Wilson says, “Kids need exposure to fresh foods, not processed foods. Children don’t eat what’s good for them because they don’t know it exists unless their parents buy it and eat it. Adults need to make nutritious choices so kids have a healthy example to follow. Working with a physician or nutritionist or even doing the research themselves can help parents.”

Involve children in deciding what nourishes their bodies. Dr. Rush-Wilson has observed that children pay attention to what their classmates bring for lunch. She notes, “When you educate kids about what’s healthy, they bring salads or rice and beans.”

Dr. Rush-Wilson supports use of traditional, electronic, and social media to help increase childhood obesity awareness throughout the year. She says, “We need to educate people both at home and in schools. Public service announcements could teach all of us how to treat and feed our bodies differently.”