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Helping Your 'Not-Thin' Kids

What parents should (and shouldn't) do
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Fit kids come in all shapes and sizes, just as fit adults do. And many experts say we should keep this foremost in mind when it comes to children who aren't thin, but who eat healthfully, have lots of energy, and exercise almost every day.

It's crucial, they say, that in concern for their overweight or obese child, parents first do no harm.

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"Frankly, I am frightened by all the media attention regarding a child obesity epidemic," says Kathy Kater, LICSW, a national expert on healthy body image. "If you limit the food needed to satiate hunger completely, it will backfire, triggering preoccupation with food and, ultimately, an overeating or compulsive eating response."

If you ask Ellyn Satter MS, RD, LCSW, today's crisis is not one simply of overweight children, but also of parenting and feeding.

"Jobs, money, and social advancement compete in importance with raising children, and parents aren't encouraged to keep their priorities straight," says Satter, author of Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming. "As a result, a high proportion of today's children are anxious and depressed. As a society, we are abominable about feeding ourselves, only marginally better about feeding our children, and obsessed with weight."

Some say our society's obsession with dieting and weight has hurt more than it has helped. One recent study from the University of California-Berkeley showed that frequent dieting may lead to weight gain. Of the 149 obese women studied (with an average age of 46), those who had dieted before age 14 were more than twice as likely to have dieted 20 times or more, and to have the highest BMIs (body mass indexes).

Even worse, this obsession appears to have extended to our children. Studies show that 5- to 9-year-olds who get the message that they're overweight feel flawed in every way -- that they're not smart, not physically capable, and not worthy, says Satter. At the same time, she says, equally heavy children who haven't gotten that message feel fine.

"Overweight diagnoses create the very problems they are intended to address when parents restrict food and then the food-deprived -- and therefore food-preoccupied -- child overeats and gains too much weight," says Satter.

Eating Disorders on the Rise

Anorexia has risen steadily since the 1950s, while the rate of bulimia among 10- to 39-year-olds tripled between 1988 and 1993, according to Diane Mickley, MD, director of the Wilkins Center (which specializes in eating disorders, self-esteem, and weight issues).

What are the ages when children are most vulnerable to developing eating disorders? "For anorexia it's … in the 12- to 13-year ballpark, around physical puberty, and also later, in the 17-year range, around the approach of separation for college," says Mickley. "Bulimia has a peak onset during the college-aged years."

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