Obesity is one of the most serious health epidemics facing our society today, with one in three children currently overweight or obese in the UK.
At the same time, as parents we are constantly aware of the impact a negative body image can have on a child. An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has actually compiled a report -'Reflections on body image' Â– suggesting that compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons should be taught in all schools. So how do we ensure that our children aren't unduly obsessed with their body image, whilst ensuring that they have a healthy attitude to food and activity? With the school summer holidays coming up, MoreLife estimates that 4.3 million children will succumb to 'Summer Sofa Syndrome' and could put on as much as half a stone because of unstructured free time and an uncontrolled diet.
Keeping it real
It is apparent that the media play on society's body image insecurity. Celebrities are always being criticized for their fluctuating weight. It's important to have open conversations with your children on how the media and advertisers manipulate images and remember that your attitude to your own body will be reflected in your children's attitude to theirs. For some really useful advice on how to promote self-esteem, see this useful parent's pack on body image: http://www.mediasmart.org.uk/parents-pack.php.
Food for thought
We also need to consider our relationship with food and how it fits into family life. Margarita Bennett, a fitness instructor who works with MEND, says that Western society is at extreme ends of the same scale; an obesity epidemic and body image obsession.
She says Â“I don't believe in diets; they are unrealistic and don't work long term. Building self esteem is a good idea but children need education on nutrition, label reading and home economics. If this was provided in all the schools and involved the parents, our eating habits would change dramatically.
Sue Thomason, author of beautifulmagazine.com and contributor to the APPG report, asserts that there is no evidence that dieting helps people to lose weight. She says Â“There is a great deal more evidence pointing towards dieting being the direct cause of eating disorders (under eating AND overeating) that lead to severely underweight and severely overweight people. The manufactured (unachievable) media ideal body together with dieting advice is the direct cause of the obesity problem we live with at the moment as well as the rising tide in eating problems.Â”
Personal trainer, Neilon Pitamber, agrees insisting that low-fat culture is contributing to obesity. He says Â“people are encouraged to eat processed foods with extra added sugar which is used to replace the taste of the fat. This is damaging in 3 main ways - the food is less satisfying, it's also seen as a safe option, so more is eaten, and it's higher in refined carbohydrates which means it gets instantly turned to fat and impacts insulin, eventually leading to metabolic syndrome or diabetes.Â”
You don't necessarily need to encourage your children to take up competitive sports to increase their exercise. Sue Thomason recommends integrating activities like bike rides, swims and walks into your family's life, including exciting things like playing with the dog, metal detecting and building bonfires. She says Â“forcing kids into exercise for weight loss goals instead of helping them to focus on the joy of movement and games interferes with their motivation to moveÂ”.
As parents you play
a direct role in shaping the way your children feel about exercise, food and self image. The increasing frequency of conditions such as obesity, self-esteem, bulimia and anorexia are concerning and it is worth bearing in mind the influencing factors to these. The guidelines below outline a positive approach which will hopefully lead to a happy and healthy child: Â Don't ban certain foods Â– it will encourage them to crave the forbidden Â Knowledge is power, educate yourself and your children on nutrition Â Ensure their diet includes vegetables, fruit and plenty of water Â Give your children smaller portions than yourself Â Set a good example by sitting down at the table as a family to eat Â Encourage a lively active lifestyle Â Promote self-confidence and a realistic outlook on simulated media
Â Neilon Pitamber is a qualified Personal Trainer based in Brighton with an holistic and integrated approach to fitness and wellbeing. He ran the London Marathon 2011 in barefoot trainers and again for London Marathon 2012. Â Margarita Bennett is a fitness Instructor for The Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors, Â Sue Thomason is the author of www.beautifulmagazine.co.uk. She helped to research and gather information for the APPG report and is also a contributor of evidence.