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Simplifying Science

When Kids Lose Weight

Weight loss is a touchy subject at any age. There are some people who are unhealthfully heavy, and it becomes a doctor’s job to counsel them about the risks. But that advice can feel shaming, impossibly trite, or simply unattainable. Sometimes it’s all three. Then there are people who are unhealthfully lightweight, and ironically, they experience all of the same hurdles.

If you think this is tricky territory for adults, try addressing it among kids. Self-esteem establishes itself during childhood - we can all easily flash back to a definitive moment in our youth when we were made to feel awful - so much so that comments about weight, even ones meant to be helpful and encouraging, can resonate for a lifetime. Often not in a good way.

New research about weight loss among kids suggests that even when kids would benefit from losing weight, they often don’t know how to do it safely or effectively. Although the study didn’t look at the emotional overlay, it seems obvious to me that our fear of talking about this - our parental worry about saying the wrong thing and scarring the psyche of our child - means that we often say nothing, leaving our kids to try to figure out how to take ownership of their health without adult support.  

There’s some good news: kids are absorbing many of the messages about healthy living circulated widely to adults trying to do the same. So they often use strategies like drinking more water or eating more fruits and veggies but fewer junk foods. These approaches work; they also may lead to a lifetime of better eating habits.

The best advice I can offer is three-pronged: First, have regular conversations about nutrition that focus on health, not weight (and while you’re at it, throw away the scale!). Healthfulness is the goal, after all, and so it should be the starting point. Second, don’t ignore what’s in front of you, whether it’s your own weight or your child’s. If you cannot figure out a way to have the conversation or if you simply fear it to the point of avoidance, let your pediatrician help. We would do anything for our children, so we need to help them learn to eat well whether they weigh too much, too little, or just the right amount for their height. And finally, practice what you preach. If there’s a better way for one child to eat, then everyone else in the family will benefit, too. Clear out the pantry and restock the fridge with items good for everyone at home.

Thanks to i yunmai for making this photo available freely on @unsplash

Thanks to i yunmai for making this photo available freely on @unsplash

More U.S. teens, especially girls, have been attempting to lose weight, according to newly analyzed federal survey data.

Results from the 2013-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicated that nearly 38% of adolescents said they had attempted to lose weight within the last year, with more girls attempting weight loss than boys from 2013 to…READ MORE