Childhood obesity: Having "The Talk" with kids can head off trouble

Childhood obesity, studies show, is perhaps harder for parents to have "The Talk" about with their kids than it is to have "The Talk" about sex and drugs. But it does work, if parents walk their talk.

Kevin Wolf/AP Images for YMCA
Childhood obesity can be reduced if parents walk "The Talk" about changing eating and exercise habits. Pictured here, Dominique Dawes, three-time Olympic gymnast and co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, encourages kids at the Washington, D.C., Y to get 60 minutes of active play every day.

Virginia Smith dreaded having “The Talk” with her daughter, Ramsey, but she couldn’t put it off any longer.

She was concerned about her daughter’s weight. Still, she didn’t want to hurt Ramsey’s self-esteem or say anything that could spark issues of negative body image.

So Ms. Smith decided to frame the conversation around being healthy — and not about weight.

“I talked about being healthy and about making changes we could do as a family,” Smith said. “I told her I want her to live a long, happy, healthy life.” Since that conversation about two years ago, Smith and her daughter, now 13, have adopted a healthy lifestyle overhaul.

They started with drinking water instead of soda and eating more fruits and vegetables. They now often break out into 15-minute-long dance sessions at home, and they are planning to soon run together in a 5K. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta wants to help more of these talks – and transformations – take place.

Today, the hospital launches a new Strong4Life website providing parents with tools and tips for having “The Talk.” The website’s offerings include a database of doctors specially trained to counsel families struggling with weight issues, healthy recipes and an online health assessment. It’s part of Children’s far-reaching efforts to fight obesity. The hospital has a Health4Life Clinic for overweight children. It also runs a special summer camp for overweight children and trains pediatricians on how to discuss the often-sensitive subject of weight.

“We really want parents to start with themselves and for them to have a healthy conversation with themselves about family ... and the kind of role models they want to be ... and then talk to their kids,” said Stephanie Walsh, the medical director of child wellness at Children’s.

This latest push to fight obesity comes about a year after Children’s controversial ad campaign featuring black-and-white photos of obese children on billboards with messages such as: “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid” and “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Walsh said the campaign was designed to help people realize – albeit in dramatic fashion – that childhood obesity is a crisis.

The statistics are staggering. Nearly one in three children ages 10 to 17 in Georgia is considered to be overweight or obese, according to the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. Georgia ranks second in the country for childhood obesity (just behind Mississippi) according to “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” a report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Now, Children’s wants to help parents make concrete lifestyle changes. Dr. Walsh suggests parents tackle health and obesity one small step at a time – such as begin taking a family walk after dinner, drinking more water, limiting screen time to one hour a day.

Talking to kids about weight can be difficult for parents. In fact, nearly one in four parents is uncomfortable talking about weight with his or her kids, according to a 2011 survey sponsored by WebMd and Sanford Health. For parents of teens, no other topic makes them cringe more. Not drugs (6 percent uncomfortable), not sex (12 percent uncomfortable).

Castulo Morales Alanis of Alpharetta, Ga. said he had no choice but to talk to his 8-year-old son, Jonathan, about obesity because his son’s feet hurt because his weight. Mr. Alanis and wife, Miguelina Arriaga, told their son they needed to make some healthy changes. About two months ago, with the help of Tthe Health4Life Clinic, Alanis and his son made some immediate changes, including switching from cooking in corn oil to olive oil, and they now eat vegetables steamed – not sauteed in oil. And while Jonathan used to go to the park to play only because his parents insisted he get some physical exercise, he now looks forward to playing outdoors with his friends. Alanis said talking to his son wasn’t easy, but he tried to keep the conversation positive and said his son has come around.

Meanwhile, Kathleen Boehmig found herself needing to have “The Talk” with her teenage son Allen, even though he is not overweight. Ms. Boehmig was concerned Allen, who is in the band and likes to play video games, was not getting enough exercise.

“We tell him that .... 'We want you to live a long, healthy life,' but it’s hard to impress that upon a teenager because it seems so far into the distance,” she said.

But something clicked when a veterinarian pointed out that the family’s golden retriever, Cody, needed more exercise.

“Allen has a big heart and loves the dog more than anything,” Boehmig said, “and he now walks the dog every day.”

To start “The Talk” with yourself: Honestly evaluate your family’s habits and the kind of role model you want to be.

Think healthy behaviors, not weight. This should not be a discussion about anyone’s weight – it’s a discussion about making good choices.

Keep goals reasonable. If your family drinks sugary beverages every day, it would be unrealistic to set a goal to not drink them at all. Make small changes for positive progress.

Nobody’s perfect. If you have a bad day,  the next day is a new day to start again.

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