As a mother of two teenagers and a dietitian who works as a director of nutrition and food services at Walden Behavioral Care, I am ALL TOO aware of the questionable line of when do you (if you do) discuss weight concerns with your child.  The above map indicates that 13 of our states are populated with individuals who are 30% or more obese (as of 2010).  The numbers have grown astronomically.  If you go back to 1985 not even one state triggered for even being 15-19% obese!

We live in Massachusetts and in 2009 an initiative was launched by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (various other states also have launched similar initiatives) that measured heights and weights of 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th graders and then plotted their BMIs.  A letter then was sent home to all parents/guardians (in the mail) and individual BMIs were provided and identified where they fell along the height/weight spectrum.   At the time my oldest child was in 10th grade and my younger one in 7th.   My oldest was rather upset, for he read the letter and it stated that his BMI was above the desirable range.  I immediately tried to console him as a mother would and then proceeded to put on my dietitian’s hat, saying that a BMI is a key index for relating weight to height – but it is not the sole predictor of healthy weight presentation.  Actually at this time my son was on the high school football team, an avid snow boarder and on the tennis team.  Although his actual numbers did put him in the “overweight” category – I had no concerns with his BMI.  And that is what I shared with him.

But not all youths will hear this message.  And some will even take on their own interpretation of the information that they are given and travel down the road from being overweight/obese to engaging in disordered eating behaviors and potentially “spiraling down” into an actual eating disorder.

How do we support our teens at a time when they are most impressionable to societal expectations, gender roles and the plethora of diets, quick fixes and the message that physical aesthetics trump intrinsic worth?  I think, just like the “sex talk,” it starts WAY before the potential topic can become a bone of contention.  And that is something I have tried to do with my children.  “FAT” is a 3 letter word that I never allowed my children to use (in reference to name calling); I aligned it with we don’t call anyone “stupid.”  To me they are very similar derogatory comments.  I also have always promoted physical activity and team sports. My son started karate at age 2 and my daughter started dance at the same age.  They both have been encouraged (year round) to play a sport or have a hobby that entails physical activity.  We talk about the importance of exercise, but it is never a “demand” but more of an encouraged “expectation.” I also lead by example.  And, of course since I am a R.D., a Registered Dietitian, I do try to promote healthy eating and encourage a variety of well balanced meals and snacks.  Yet, by no means am I perfect (just ask my kids); for you can find on our shelves on any given day, Doritos and Oreos.

(FYI: last year Massachusetts officials ended the school letters reporting out on students BMIs)

About the author:

Ginger Greco is Walden’s Director of Nutrition and Food Services.  In this role, she is responsible for all of Walden Behavioral Care’s dietary and nutritional service operations and manages and supervises the registered dietitians.  Prior to working at Walden, Ms. Greco was the Regional Director of Food and Nutrition at Health Bridge Management where she oversaw operations and clinical nutrition of 31 centers in MA, CT, MI, OH and PA.   Before that, she spent over ten years as a dietitian at several healthcare facilities.  Ms. Greco earned her bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Psychology at Simmons College and attended the University of New Hampshire for their graduate level AP-4 program.