Talking About Weight

It's Time to Change the Conversation

As seen in Capital Parent Magazine

By Jason Haug, Program and Project Management Officer, Ottawa Public Health 

Fat: a 3-letter word. It's short, and seems harmless but we all know words can hurt. Very often we hear many people talking about being unhappy with the weight on the scales or needing to go on a diet. And with media images of people with impossible proportions, our children are exposed to a world that seems obsessed with being "thin." But how does all this "fat" talk affect children? 

As parents, it can sometimes be hard to know whether to bring up concerns about weight with our children. We don't want to stigmatize our children but we also want them to be healthy. Although weight is a recognized risk factor for several chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers and osteoarthritis, it is only one indicator of health. Too much emphasis on weight can lead to negative self-esteem and the development of mental health issues. The question then becomes: what is more important - focusing on the "fat" and the "weight," or focusing on the actual behaviours that contribute to improved health? Ottawa Public Health, like many other child health experts, believes that we should all focus on the latter. People who feel good about themselves and their bodies are more likely to have healthy self-esteem, adopt healthy attitudes, and live a healthier life. After all, fat is just that - fat. It does not define the qualities or behaviours that make up someone's identity. 

So how does this change the way we should talk to our children about their weight? 

A parent's role is important in a child's ability to engage in healthy behaviours. Parents also have a strong influence on how children perceive themselves, and on how children behave. Being a good role model, and modeling healthy choices is the most important thing you can do. Watch how you talk about your own body image. Instead, talk about eating healthy foods, and how much better you feel when you are active. 

Here are a few examples of how you can focus on health behaviours rather than weight:

  • Praise your child for making healthy food choices, such as choosing a vegetable or fruit as a snack. 
  • Express how much fun you have with your child when you are playing outside together. 
  • Avoid over praising your child on their appearance. but do comment on their other characteristics: how they are nice to their younger sibling, how creative they are, how they see positive things about their friends. 
  • Avoid criticizing your child's appearance or making negative comments about your own or others' appearances. 

The more positive you are, and the less you engage in "fat talk," the more your child will benefit, but don't be afraid to talk with your child if they bring weight up. Just try to keep these key points in mind.

  • Emphasize the benefits of better health.
  • Identify that weight is one factor in health, but does not define their overall appearance. 
  • Let your child express their feelings about the issue. Be supportive and positive.
  • Avoid the use of food as punishments or rewards. When using food as comfort, it can create negative associations with food, and possibly lead to control issues, such as binge eating, later in life.
  • Offer to work together towards being healthier. Every family member can benefit from engaging in healthy behaviours.

Words do matter. Focusing on healthy behaviours instead of weight will help your child become a healthy and resilient adult. 

Do you have more questions?

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