Winning the battle over childhood obesity
It may have been the most incriminating moment of my childhood.
The culprit: one chubby eight-year-old (me).
The accomplice: a sympathetic classmate-slash-junk-food smuggler.
The goods: a bag of Doritos.
The teacher caught me — and the entire class’s attention — when she asked me to stop eating and turn to face her. “Krissy,” she said. “Your parents and your doctor don’t want you eating that.” Then, her words wailed in my ears like sirens:
“You’re on a diet.”
I dropped my head and rolled up the bag as the class stared in shock. Just like that, I was busted. Orange-handed.
My grandfather had just died. He and I had been super-close and without him I had grown achingly lonely. My brother and I began to visit our newly widowed grandmother every weekend, and I filled my loneliness with the massive homemade meals Gram served — spaghetti with sausage and meatballs, ham and potato chip sandwiches, and for breakfast, pancakes and omelettes as big as my head.
An internal battle at every meal
I was sure I was the only kid I knew who fought an internal battle at every meal. I was ashamed about who I was becoming. I’d been an incredibly happy baby, always known for my big personality and bright smile, but at only 8, I felt like there were extra outside layers I’d have to chip away at to get to that little girl. She was lost.
Every month that year my parents and I traveled two hours to visit pediatric weight specialists and nutritionists. At 98 pounds I was the heaviest child in my class, and I never would have dreamed I’d be one of the three in ten children who outgrow childhood obesity. I simply ate too much at every meal and had no idea how to turn off my cravings. Like many of the 10 percent of American children today who are clinically overweight, I began to battle depression, low self-esteem and poor body image. The worse I felt, the more I ate and the less I wanted to help my body by moving it.
My parents, both tall and athletic, tried desperately to get inside my head and heart, but the louder they knocked to enter the harder I pushed them away. Shame and self-consciousness isolated me. When my third grade teacher handed out our yearbook photos I turned mine over so my friends wouldn’t comment on my double chin. I insisted on wearing clothes over my wet bathing suit between swim meet exhibitions. One lunch period during fourth grade I didn’t eat for fear my crush would compare me to the overstuffed hoagie my grandma had packed while my parents were away on business. That same year I started my period and sent my doctors on a yet more frenzied quest to understand what was happening to my body. I had prematurely reached a weight that sent a signal to my reproductive system saying I was ready to menstruate, and it scared all of us. Clearly my relationship with food was disrupting my normal development.
I decided that everything was changing
One more year passed, then on the morning of Easter Sunday in fifth grade, I stepped onto the scale before our family feast and went sick at the number that flashed up at me in red: 143. I sat down on the toilet and sobbed, and decided that everything was changing — forever. I ate more than I could stomach at the all-day holiday buffet and promised this would be the last time I would ever feel so stuffed.
The week before, my teacher, a man in his fifties, had announced that he was changing his diet. For breakfast he sliced a juicy green apple and drank tomato juice, and for lunch and dinner he cut down his portion sizes and enjoyed a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables instead of the pasta and roasts he’d loved. When he revealed on Easter Monday that he was already feeling lighter, I seized my chance and asked if he would accept me as his miniature diet partner. He accepted. I sighed relief that finally someone could relate to my struggle. He taught me that if I wanted to lose weight, I had to stop dwelling on “diet foods” and start thinking about eating foods that would make my body healthy. This was a concept completely new to me.
In the spring I landed a newspaper route. Every day for the next year I walked or rode my bike three miles and in the first two months I lost 15 pounds. My customers loved chatting with me, and I was amazed to feel the self-loathing and shyness, which had once ruled me, melting away. In their places, confidence and an outgoing personality began to blossom. Plus, I was beginning to like the shape of my body.
That was nearly two decades ago, but the healthy habits and resilience that came from learning to manage my weight became a permanent part of me. Today I’m a young woman with a body I’m proud of. I write about health and fitness and have taught exercise classes in New York City and Europe. Yes, my weight will always require me to be mindful. But as my friends who were once skinny kids begin to struggle with weight gain for the first time, I’m incredibly thankful that I learned how to keep an eye on my healthy body and self-esteem at a young age.
As an adult I’m fortunate to know which nutrients and activity my body needs to stay healthy and live long. To look at what my family, school and I did right, I caught up with teen wellness expert, licensed family therapist (and former Catholic school teacher) Rich Dutra-St. John. Dutra-St. John is a regular Oprah guest, author of the new book Be the Hero You’ve Been Waiting For, and co-founder with his wife Yvonne of Challenge Day.
Dutra-St. John says that with Challenge Day’s initiatives to end violence and teasing in schools, it’s important to get “the separation between people out of the way. The work in terms of obesity we did was, we started talking about, ‘So what are they hungry for? What is it they’re seeking and reaching out for?’ — that in fact they can find it inside?”
Dutra-St. John says that eating — or, actually, overeating — can turn into an endless cycle of shame and guilt for a child, causing them to isolate from the world around them. He says food cravings may be caused by a spiritual deficit, or wanting stimulation to look forward to. Overeating may also give a child a short-term feeling of being connected to themselves or others because, biologically and psychologically, food is associated with love.
Thinking differently about food is a family affair
Rebecca Puhl is Director of Research and Anti-Stigma Initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. She and Dutra-St. John have fantastic insights into the supportive steps that a child’s parents, school, and community can take to help them overcome body issues and develop into a healthy, happy, successful adult:
- Focus on health, not weight. Puhl says a helpful way to get a child thinking differently about what they put into their body is to shift their focus away from the scale, onto realistic behavior changes that will benefit their health. Work on concrete improvements like increasing servings of fruit and vegetables, taking a vitamin every morning, decreasing soda consumption and walking for twenty minutes daily. A small step away from that scary teetering needle can be a giant leap toward constructive health changes.
- Foster self-esteem and body-esteem. According to Puhl, a great way to encourage your child’s health is to celebrate their character and physical strength instead of allowing them to dwell on the pitfalls of their body. When they help around the house or comfort a sibling who is sad, be sure to give applause for the helper/leader/compassionate heart they are. Also, if they are more of a natural thinker than a born mover, brainstorm together on activities that will get their body moving toward a goal they’ll feel proud to accomplish, but which are not solely for weight loss — like a paper route or active new hobby.
- Don’t compare the child to other children. Dutra-St. John says, in our society a common mistake children and parents make is that “we compare our insides to other people’s outsides.” This creates an iceberg effect, he says, where we base our judgments of others only on the parts of them we can see, ignoring the larger internal story that’s at work for individuals under the surface. Pitting a child’s physical and emotional state against those of their peers only separates them and sharpens their feelings of isolation.
- Praise the role models who aren’t a size zero. Puhl says we are fortunate to be raising children in a time and culture that embraces celebrities who aren’t as skinny as hangers. When your daughter is flipping through her magazines, point out the beautiful strong bodies of female athletes, the talent and determination of American Idol stars like Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, and the brains and lovability of actors like America Ferrara. Kids today need to see that real people with inspiring backgrounds and realistic bodies are, as Puhl notes, “attractive, successful, happy and healthy.”
- Making it a family affair is crucial. According to Dr. Puhl, most of the healthful habits a child practices happen at home through a group effort. Healthy living needs to be a family goal — a kid shouldn’t feel they are on a deserted diet island; this approach will alienate them — and their positive goals — from the people who should most support them. Dutra-St. John also focuses on involving family members in teen wellness workshops so they wake up to the child’s fear and hopelessness. “The more you can [take action] in partnership with other people, the better it will work.” But if the child isn’t getting support, they should aim for healthy goals anyway. Dutra-St. John says, “Be the change.”
- Find fun ways to involve the child. Dr. Puhl says the more your child participates in a healthy life change as a process, the more empowered he or she will feel. Exercise plans, grocery lists and family health philosophies should be collaborative, so that your child will enjoy making them work.