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Personal side of childhood obesity

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POSTED: April 7, 2013 6:30 p.m.
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Before burgers and fries become your child’s idea of a typical dinner, stage a family discussion about healthy eating.

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In the past few years, we’ve heard a lot of discourse on the national level about childhood obesity.
We see Michelle Obama encourage people to move, and the USDA has tightened school-lunch plans. Talking heads cite statistics about obesity rates and their connection to health problems. By now, we all should know this is a topic to take seriously.
A friend of mine studying nutrition recently invited me to the “Move Your Body to COPE” fundraiser April 14 in Savannah. The 2-5 p.m. fundraiser includes yoga, zumba and crossfit activities for adults and yoga and hula hooping for children.
The event raises funds for childhood-obesity prevention and education and is sponsored by several Savannah organizations.
“How would they use the money they raise?” I thought initially. That got me thinking about the issue at hand, and how it often is presented.
Missing from the national dialogue are first-person accounts. We seldom hear the stories of parents who try to enrich their children’s lives with wholesome meals and fun activities. We don’t seem to ask children how they feel about the matter — whether they are made fun of or are oblivious. And very few adults who have struggled to maintain a healthy weight share their stories beyond conversations and blogs.
It’s a personal topic that may make some people squirm, but that’s why the stories are important. And after months of documenting my newfound love of exercise, I’d like to share my own version.
I come from a fit family. My mother was a competitive swimmer and diver, and she reportedly set track records in her district during high school. My father swears that sports have always been his life — basketball, baseball, softball, surfing — you name it, he’s done it. He still plays softball today.
My mom is genetically blessed to be naturally lean. Like many people out there, she never really needed to think about what she was eating because she knew her body would find an efficient use for it. That meant she never really considered what she was feeding my brother and me.
We often had fast food, pizza and meals at chain restaurants. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were one thing the four members of my family always had in common, so they became our default bonding time. It’s no wonder, then, that we spent our breakfast talking about lunch and dinner.
My dad didn’t help. Our visits together consisted of doughnuts, candy orange slices, Twizzlers and McDonald’s sundaes.
As a small child, I could gorge on gallons of mint chocolate chip ice cream with the best of ’em and never show it. But as I neared adolescence, that began to change.
And unfortunately, unlike my parents, my interest in sports was more fleeting. Activity wasn’t necessarily a passion then but a way to fill some time and a reason to socialize. We all quickly learned that my metabolism was not like theirs.
My stepdad’s solution to the problem? He told my mom to stop buying cookies.
No one ever sat me down and explained that fitness is about health and getting the greatest quality out of my life. Instead, I thought fitness was just for supermodels. Since I knew I was not — and would never be — the next Heidi Klum, I just gave up. I buried myself in clandestine cookie trips once I got my driver’s license, and it didn’t stop there.
Let me pause here for illustration’s sake. As a function of body-mass index, the largest I ever reached was 33 percent. My medical records show that my weight gain from about 12 years on was very slow and steady — a gradual incline each year until I hated looking at pictures of myself and realized that something had to change.
I think that gradual gain is something we take as a foregone conclusion in today’s society, but that mentality is exactly what allows problems to creep into our lives before we realize how large the problems have become.
As I gained, I became embarrassed to purchase new clothing because I didn’t like the numbers on the tags. I realized that I was less attractive in pictures. I counted all the ways in which I wasn’t so bad, which made me complacent.
Throughout high school, I was always aware that I was slightly bigger than my friends. That made sharing clothes a challenge, but no one staged an intervention. After all, I was just a little bit larger — not heavy enough to be called “fat” but also not small enough to be “hot.”
However, I was aware enough that it hurt my self-esteem and self-perception. I enjoyed the act of going to the beach with my friends, but I dreaded the part where we wore swimsuits. I knew I had a great personality, but I often wondered whether my crushes would find me attractive.
Remember how I said this is a topic that’s really personal and makes us squirm? I think we’ve reached that point.
My goal is not for anyone to pity me, but rather to imagine how they would feel if their own children, students, neighbors and friends experienced the same struggle.
I share this account to help readers — parents, grandparents, teachers, students, policy makers, business owners who profit from fatty foods — understand the emotional affects of handing kids vending-machine snacks instead of fresh alternatives.
Statistics about the number of obese children in schools are easy to ignore. They’re detached and faceless. They don’t demonstrate that every individual child may not grow with the strength, courage and confidence that he or she deserves.
And as someone who’s strived to overcome those issues, I think the best thing we can do for our children is approach the issue head-first.
I applaud local efforts at all levels to make fitness a priority, and I think Lewis Frasier Middle School nurse Peggy Rayman does a tremendous service to local students with her health initiatives.
It’s time for more people to become involved and bring the conversation home, where it is reinforced. After all, I learned in school about good choices and bad ones. But since the good wasn’t reinforced, I figured it wasn’t that essential.
Please be mindful of what you are feeding your children and how it will relate to their future preferences and habits. Please speak with them about their food and activity levels. I’m not saying to let “weight” drive the conversation, but rather, healthy and sustainable habits.
Let them know that indulgences are OK in moderation, and have a frank conversation about just how frequent “moderation” should be. Ask them what they already know, whether there are any ideas they’ve learned at school that spiked their interest. You may actually learn — or re-learn — something from them.
While national media and activist groups say such decisions will save money on medical costs, I think these decisions sure could save our loved ones from a lot of heartache and frustration.

 

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