By Kathleen McNeely, Nutritionist
Stigma against children in larger bodies is often overlooked as a contributor to childhood obesity, but it’s important to talk about it. This month in honor of National Childhood Obesity Month, we’re sharing tips to stop the stigma.
As obesity rates among children continue to rise globally, we need to look at all contributing factors. Contrary to popular belief, stigma and shame do not motivate people to lose weight. Instead, children who experience weight stigma may avoid seeking health care services, participate less in physical activity, and turn to binge eating and social isolation, which can lead to increased weight gain.
The start of the new school year is a good time to come together to combat weight stigma, especially after social distancing strategies during the pandemic created a perfect storm for weight gain. Throughout last school year, many children experienced increased sedentary screen time due to online learning while all organized physical activity provided in schools or in after-school programs came to a screeching halt. Additionally, many households saw a sharp increase in stress-induced opportunities to indulge in calorie-dense processed foods.
As children have been returning to classrooms this month, weight stigma may be on the rise. Research shows that weight-biased stereotypes toward children with weight challenges can appear in children as young as 3 years old. Biases and stigma can come from peers, but also from significant adults in children’s lives like parents and other family members, teachers, health care professionals and society at large, including popular media.
You can make a difference! Here are 8 tips to stop the stigma about childhood obesity:
- Recognize your own biases around larger bodied people.
- Use supportive, people-first language (i.e., “child with obesity” as opposed to “obese child”).
- Avoid diet-focused language in the home, such as labeling food as good and bad, special food, treat food, junk food, etc. Instead try using words such as nourishing, energizing, nutrient-rich, and satisfying when describing food.
- Be a role model for an active lifestyle by participating in family outings to local parks for hiking, swimming, and other activities.
- Lead by example, showing the children in your life how it’s fun and delicious to include fresh vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole grains, and plenty of water in meals and snacks. Invite children to participate in preparing meals or in growing a vegetable garden.
- Reward children with something other than food. When children perform well in school or excel at a sport, instead of taking them out for pizza to celebrate, offer up something active like a picnic day at a local park with a soccer ball or Frisbee.
- Turn off the TV! Advertising and programming for children promote negative stereotypes of larger bodied children.
- Advocate against weight stigma in community settings. For example, you can work with schools to ensure anti-bullying policies include protections for students who are bullied about their weight.