Q. My 12-year-old son is obese. Lately he’s been eating more and staying in his room rather than interacting with the family. Is there a way I can get him to manage his weight problem without him becoming defensive?
A. You are not alone in dealing with this issue. According to the American Heart Association, nearly 1 in 3 children are now classified as overweight or obese. This figure has tripled since 1980.
Your son is reaching puberty, and he may be feeling that his weight is impacting his ability to “fit in” at school or with his friends. Feelings of isolation can cause children to crave carbohydrates and sweets. These foods stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which lessens negative feelings. Thus, by eating he momentarily feels better.
Following are some suggestions of ways that you can help him to be more conscious of his need to maintain a healthy weight:
• Make a plan for the entire family to become healthier. I’ve known children who become motivated once family members each get a pedometer and turn daily walking into a contest. You can also take him to the grocery store with you. Have him read food labels and help you choose the healthiest foods.
• Don’t make critical comments. Nothing makes someone who is overweight want to eat an entire cake as much as someone criticizing them for having a big slice of cake. Instead set an example by choosing healthy snacks for yourself.
• Don’t force an exercise program on him. Encourage him to be active at something he enjoys. He should look at exercise as fun, not as punishment.
• Be certain he gets plenty of sleep. There is a correlation between lack of sleep and obesity. The longer he is awake the more food he needs to sustain his energy level.
There are also many professionals who can help your son. He may profit from meeting with a nutritionist or a mental health professional with an expertise in weight management.
Q. I am a very thin middle-aged woman who has always been small. I am so tired of other women making comments about how thin I am. I find this to be just as offensive as me making a comment about how large someone is. Could you please address this issue?
A. Since we live in a society that values being thin, many people believe it is acceptable to praise people for being underweight. In fact, it is not only rude, but can be dangerous as well. Middle-aged women are one of the fastest growing groups of people with eating disorders. Nothing spurs an anorexic on to more dieting than someone telling her she is too thin.
Many other people are thin due to health issues. No one wants to praise someone on his or her weight loss only to discover the person is ill or undergoing chemotherapy.
Other people are thin because they lose their appetites during a period of depression. I was at a party many years ago where everyone was commenting on how lovely a woman looked because she had lost so much weight. Two weeks later she attempted suicide. She had lost weight because of depression, not because she wanted to look good.
The next time this happens to you, take the person aside. Tell her that it is just as inappropriate to comment on someone being thin as it is on someone being overweight. People would never say “looks like you’ve really added some major pounds this year” to someone who is large. You’ll feel better by addressing the issue, and that person is less likely to make comments about anyone’s weight in the future.
Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or send them to Dr. Ryburn, SEARK, 1900 Hazel Street, Pine Bluff, AR 71603. The questions could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all correspondence remains confidential.