The Obesity Epidemic: Obesity is a Family AffairMarch 8, 2023
The Obesity Epidemic: It is well known that obesity has been on the rise over the last 50 years. Some of the latest research estimates that over 60% of adults and 30% of children in the United States are now obese or at risk of becoming obese. Consequently, there has also been a rise in obesity related conditions among the adult and child populations. As a society, more than ever before, we are seeing children develop type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and cardiac issues as a result of being overweight. Children are being bullied for their weight, struggling to fit in with peers, and demonstrating signs of low self-esteem, poor body image, and depression as early as kindergarten. Additionally, adolescents and teenagers are presenting with obesity related disordered eating, particularly binge eating, as well as food addiction.
Obesity and the Family
As a Clinical Psychologist in the field of obesity treatment, I witness firsthand the multitude of factors that contribute to the obesity crisis.
Where does it all start? Well, some would argue that it starts with the family. There is likely a combination of biological, genetic, emotional, behavioral, and lifestyle factors which play a role in my observation of obesity running in families.
There is a genetic component to weight and metabolism which can create a predisposition for some children to struggle with their weight more than others.
There is research suggesting that parenting style may impact weight, with children of authoritarian and permissive parents being at higher risk for obesity. The diet that parents make available to their children is, of course, a key factor in predicting obesity, as are the eating behaviors and attitudes toward food which are modeled by parents to their children. For instance, commonly in obese families, there is a theme of food being used for purposes other than nutrition.
Children may learn that food is a tool to combat boredom, reward accomplishments, celebrate events, soothe negative emotions, enhance positive emotions, and incentivize desirable behavior.
Family and Healthy Changes
Simple changes within the family can improve the chances of children obtaining and maintaining healthy weights. In most cases, it all starts with the parents/caregivers. In particular, it is important for children to observe their parents making healthy food choices and eating in a manner that is not disordered.
Parents can purge their pantries of highly processed foods and offer their children healthier snack options, such as cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs, low-sugar yogurt, nuts/seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Families can avoid eating fast food by planning meals in advance, cooking at home, or selecting prepared meals from the grocery store.
Grocery shopping and cooking can be turned into a fun family affair, providing parents with an opportunity to educate children about nutrition and healthy choices.
Parents can model healthy habits such as eating structured meals and snacks, as opposed to grazing and snacking all day, and can encourage eating together at the table instead of on the go, in the car, and/or in front of screens.
Parents can stop giving their children unlimited access to food and snacks and can limit desserts/treats to special occasions. Family events and celebrations can be adjusted such that activities and games are the focus, as opposed to food. Additionally, as a bonus to good nutrition, parents can increase the family’s level of physical activity by incorporating walks, yoga, fun exercises, or sports into family routines.
The Obesity Epidemic: In Summary
There are a multitude of biological, genetic, emotional, behavioral, and lifestyle factors involved with the rise in obesity and physical problems. Families have the power to implement positive change and set the stage for their children to grow into healthy adults.
Making dietary, behavioral, and lifestyle changes can be difficult, but even the smallest improvements can make a big difference. When the whole family gets on board and parents and children work together, changes can feel less challenging, and perhaps, can even be fun.
Michelle Mirsky, Psy.D., currently practices at Middlesex Health Medical and Surgical Weight Loss Center in Middletown, Connecticut.
ABOUT THE AUTHORMichelle Mirsky, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the Middlesex Health Surgical Alliance and Center for Medical & Surgical Weight Loss. Michelle has over 15 years of clinical experience in the field of obesity management, with specializations in behavioral weight loss, eating disorders, and the treatment of binge eating disorder and food addiction. She works with patients before and after their procedure and collaborates with the entire weight loss team.