When I was in grade school, one of my classmates was greatly overweight. Michael was an easy target for teasing and bullying. He couldn’t run very well and always did poorly in gym class. He was shy, and most of the children didn’t want to be seen with him, so he was largely ignored. In our third-grade minds, we assumed he was so fat because there was something wrong with him — something made him eat too much. We never considered that shunning him may possibly have contributed to that. While studying child psychology in college, I thought about Michael, what he must have felt, and wondered how he “turned out” as an adult. Nowadays, Michael would not be the only obese child in a classroom. The Obesity Society notes, in the past 30 years, the occurrence of overweight in children has tripled.
Childhood obesity is preventable in the majority of cases, yet it requires a commitment by adults to address both the obvious and the hidden causes. The consequences for children and our society are too great if we don’t come together to maturely address this epidemic.
Potential Health Consequences
The Obesity Society points out that both short-term and long-term effects of overweight on health are of immense concern because of the negative physical health consequences in childhood. Obese children are at much greater risk than other children of insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertension, sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, liver disease and orthopedic problems. They also are more likely to be obese as adults, thus increasing the risk of a number of diseases, among them stroke, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers.
Potential Psychological Consequences
The typical psychological outcomes of obesity are depressive symptoms, poor body image, low self-concept, risk for eating disorders and behavior and learning problems. This list reminds me of a lonely child in our neighborhood who has all the above issues. I’ve known Anna (not her real name) since she was five. As far as I know, she has always been obese (as has her father). My heart has always gone out to her because it was obvious to me that she had low self-concept and depressive symptoms. Now, at age 13, she is still a loner and plays just with younger children, as far as I can tell. Obese children are often bullied and ridiculed about their appearance by their peers, like Michael was, affecting their self-esteem and confidence. Childhood overweight and obesity can leave emotional and psychological scars for life.
The Obvious Causes
Childhood obesity can be influenced by a number of genetic, environmental and behavioral factors. The most obvious causes are unhealthy eating patterns and too little physical activity at home and at school. Many children spend most of their time in sedentary activities like playing video games or watching television. Physical education has been eliminated from a lot of schools due to budget cuts, and too many parents are afraid to let their children play outdoors these days. As a result, people are pointing fingers to address this growing epidemic. They are blaming schools, fast food restaurants and parents. But blaming is not a solution. We need to work with schools and parents to create solutions, which thankfully, more leaders and organizations are starting to do.
The Hidden Cause – Emotional Eating
Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath (IHM), along with many weight-loss specialists and health professionals, have found a major hidden cause of overeating and obesity that is largely being overlooked: emotional eating. Emotional eating or stress eating is typical of overweight children and adults alike. It is the unchecked habit of using both food to cope with problems and an attempt to comfort one’s self.
“Experts now agree that about 75 percent of overeating is caused by emotional eating, which means that a lot of us are using food to cope with our feelings,” notes the HeartMath book, Stopping Emotional Eating. “In today’s high-stress society, many of us, adults and children, eat high-fat or high-sugar foods to soothe our emotions or temporarily relieve our stress and anxiety.”
Learning Emotional Self-Regulation
The good news is that it’s not hard to learn how to acknowledge and release stress in healthier ways. But it takes the example and the guidance of parents or adult caretakers to model this to children. Children are just as capable as adults to learn healthy ways to manage emotions and release stress, which can have an immediate impact on improving their health, academic performance, social lives and overall well-being.
Investigating the physiology of emotions has been at the forefront of IHM’s research for two decades. During that time, a wealth of studies incorporating the HeartMath System of tools and technology have demonstrated that recognizing the ways negative emotions are affecting behaviors and health and then learning to replace them with positive emotions is achievable in a relatively short amount of time.
One important study that illustrates how school children at a campus near Miami, Fla., were able to begin this transformation academically and in other ways is The Impact of an Emotional Self-Management Skills Course on Psychosocial Functioning and Autonomic Recovery to Stress in Middle School Children.
Commitment to Children
IHM cares deeply about the health and well-being of children and has many ideas, programs and free services designed to make their formative years healthier and happier.
One of IHM’s recent efforts is to provide a resource for children and those that care for them, at home, school or in the community. HeartMath My Kids Facebook page is for caretakers of children, including parents, grandparents, daycare providers, teachers, counselors, principals and psychologists. The page is aimed at helping kids manage and overcome anxieties, fears, emotional turbulence and other issues they face on a daily basis.
Among the HeartMath tools that have helped thousands of children self-regulate stress and emotions are the Quick Coherence® Technique for Ages 12-18; HeartShift Tool for ages 7-11 and Shift and Shine for Ages 3-6.
Five tips to help children learn emotional self-regulation and maintain a healthy weight*
Tip 1: Guide children in learning to recognize and articulate what they are feeling. It’s important to understand which triggers provoke excessive eating.
Tip 2: Help your children learn and apply emotional self-regulation techniques to help bring their emotions into balance.
Tip 3: Encourage and demonstrate attitudes of appreciation and forgiveness — help children find balance between apathy and perfectionism in the things they do.
Tip 4: Limit sedentary time to a combined total of two hours for watching TV, playing video games and conducting non-school-related web surfing.
Tip 5: Set an example for children by making good nutritional choices and incorporating plenty of outdoor physical activity into your own daily routine.
*Adapted from Tips for Parents — Ideas to Help Children Maintain a Healthy Weight, located on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Let me know how you feel about childhood obesity by commenting below.