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Preventing Childhood Obesity

What do your kids do when they come home from school? If they are like the majority of Canadian children today, they grab a sugary, fat-laden snack, then plop themselves down in front of the TV for most of the evening. As a result, we have a growing problem on our hands: Canadian children are getting fat!

Stats Canada tells us that the rates of obesity have tripled over the last twenty years. Thirty-seven percent of children between the ages of two and 11 are overweight. Eighteen percent of these are considered obese. Most of these kids will grow into overweight or obese adolescents and adults. In Canada, we spend 1.8 billion dollars annually treating the health consequences of being overweight. These numbers are alarming, and they represent a trend which, left unchecked, will only get worse.

We know that only a very small percentage of children become overweight due to hormonal or chromosomal abnormalities. The rest put on the pounds for one very simple (but complicated!) reason. They eat more calories than their bodies can use.

We have become a stressed-out, busy society that depends upon instant, convenient, processed foods. These taste great and make our lives easier, but they are chock full of huge amounts of fat, salt and sugar, and are seriously inadequate in nutritional value.

It used to be that human beings had to move their bodies in order to survive. Instead of chopping wood, hauling water and walking great distances, today we push buttons, pick up the telephone, and drive anywhere we need to go. Technology has allowed us to become inactive. Exercise is no longer a natural part of our lives.

Play is a natural part of our children’s lives, but play has changed too. The average child spends more time in front of TV, video games and computers than they even spend in school. Playing outside does not capture our children’s attention, compared to the lure of techno-entertainment.

Another factor in this alarming trend in weight gain is our tendency to use food for emotional reasons. We eat when we really need comfort. We eat to stuff down angry feelings. We eat to calm our anxiety, to manage stress. We eat to reward ourselves.

Our children have learned these coping tools as well. While eating may provide temporary emotional solace, it doesn’t really meet those needs. The emotions are not attended to; in addition, the child is left with more negative feelings about himself.

Self-esteem can take a beating in the overweight child. This is especially true as they approach adolescence, a time when body image is tremendously important. Social problems, like teasing or bullying are more common. Feelings of sadness and loneliness are also reported more often. The overweight child may learn to expect rejection, then withdraw from social situations. The vicious cycle then continues when they comfort themselves with food, and remain inactive in front of the TV.

Like all aspects of health and wellness, prevention of problems is paramount. Here are some ideas to try:


  • Resist the impulse to put your child on a diet. Dieting teaches your child to rely on external rules about eating, and lose touch with her own body’s signals of hunger and fullness. Studies have shown us that 95% of people who diet gain back the weight they lost.
    • Do fill your fridge and pantry with a healthy variety of foods. Let your child control his food intake, after you have provided great choices for him.
    • Don’t make your child eat when he isn’t hungry. It’s ok to leave food on their plates. That goes even for infant’s bottles. We want kids to learn how to monitor their own body’s messages.
    • Eat together as a family ? without the TV. Prepare meals at home as often as possible, rather than using take-out or fast food. Have your child eat their meals and snacks at the table.
    • Parents have a huge influence on their children’s eating and exercise behaviors. Realize that what you eat and how much you move have more impact on her than anything you will ever say. So, take stock yourself. When the whole family is involved, the overweight child is most effectively supported.
    • Limit TV, computer and video game time to one half hour per day. Encourage your kids to get outside and play. Even better, get out there with them. When families play together, interact and communicate positively, everyone has their best chance of maintaining a healthy body.
    • Take a close look at your family’s use of food. If parents or children are using food for emotional reasons, make sure you explore new methods of coping with stressors. Your kids need to know how to recognize their own uncomfortable emotions, then decide what to do to help themselves to feel better. They may need to learn relaxation skills, anger management techniques, or assertive communication.

If your child is overweight, she may require some attention to her self-esteem. Help her to recognize her many other strengths and talents, to be supportive of herself, and to focus on attributes outside of her appearance. When she can like and accept herself more fully, a healthy body and body image will be easier to maintain.

Sharon is a mother of three children and a Chartered Psychologist. She works extensively with clients who struggle with weight, body image and eating disorders. She can be reached at 208-0886.

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