Experts: Fighting childhood obesity starts at home

- Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels. Twenty percent of kids, up to age 19, are dangerously overweight, experts say.

Childhood obesity can cause a range of issues and illnesses, including diabetes. St. Petersburg-based psychologist Thomas Quinlan says it can also lead to psychological scars and isolation. 

While the knee-jerk response might be to put a child on a weight loss diet, he believes that might not be the best approach.

"Children that are overweight, struggling with their weight, have more anxiety and depression. They struggle with fitting in. A lot of them spend more time alone in front of a computer as a way to not have to socialize," Quinlan said. 

Quinlan says singling them out at home can make things worse.

"Some families will have one meal for the rest of the family and a separate meal for this child, which really is damaging on a lot of levels," Quinlan said. 

Instead, he recommends parents of overweight children start serving the entire family healthy meals.

"You can just change the food and you don't have to have this huge discussion," he pointed out.

Quinlan works with registered dietitian Sarah Krieger to tackle both the mental and nutritional aspects of obesity.  Krieger cautions parents to phase in changes rather than do it all at once.

"Short lifestyle steps [are] what it takes and you really want to do one at a time," she explained.

One of those life steps involves the preparation of healthy food. Krieger uses a hands-on approach; a concept she says is especially important for teens. 

"If they learn how to make this now, before they're out of the house, then they own these life skills," Krieger said. 

Other tips for parents include directing tweens and teens toward activities that aren't centered around food and, instead of tasty treats, use non-food rewards for children. Instead of a dinner out, offer a manicure or going to a movie or sporting event.

As for younger kids, putting them in the kitchen helps expand palates, encouraging them to try healthy options.

Krieger also advises clients to avoid using the bathroom scale to track their success.

"I really don't even encourage measuring tapes but just [go by] how your clothes are fitting," she said. 

Most experts agree talking about weight loss diets, even for yourself, can be harmful. It may even precipitate an eating disorder.

"If you have a poor negative body image, don't verbalize that to the child... Because they're watching and that can have the child look at [themselves] and question how they look as well," Krieger continued. 

She also works with families to make favorite recipes healthier, like adding vegetables to lasagna.  The goal is to adapt meals your family loves instead of creating an unfamiliar menu. 

"I'm not going to tell you to make lasagna if you hate Italian food or you should start to eat more stir fries if you just like salads and smoothies," Kreiger explained. 

But making the changes stick isn't always easy, especially for kids.

"And then people crash and burn because life happens," she said.

Quinlan also uses mindfulness and meditation to help teens and adults address the root cause of their poor eating habits. He also offers hypnotherapy.

"A lot of things that people struggle with are on the subconscious level. They don't even realize they are doing it. It's such a natural behavior," Quinlan said.

Quinlan also says, ultimately, it will take working as a team at home with a goal to make the entire family healthier.

"Once you do that, then everything falls in line with the child," he added.   

Consultations with registered dietitians like Krieger are often covered by insurance. 

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