How can you constructively criticize what and how much your child is eating? I am very concerned that my 14-year-old son will grow up to be as heavy as I am.
You are probably already aware that most teen-agers are very sensitive about their physical appearance. Hence, we would caution you not to single him out for criticism about his diet even though such criticism may come from a desire to help him. Instead, we believe it may be more healthy if you frame your comments within the context of planning meals to keep the whole family healthy. This approach may help to modify what he eats without making him feel singled out in a negative way.
Americans typically consume a diet that is too high in fat and refined sugars and too low in fiber and complex carbohydrates. Because fat and refined sugars are both calorically dense, it is not surprising that the prevalence of obesity among adolescents and adults is increasing. Similarly, heart disease, which is related to the amount of fat in the diet, remains a leading cause of death among adults.
Conversely, diets that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates are protective against heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
Hence, if you portray food choices for your son and for your family as promoting a healthy lifestyle that protects against heart disease and cancer, you will be cutting back on fat and refined carbohydrates, thereby limiting the amount of calories he consumes. Let's hope that this will prevent or decrease his weight gain to an acceptable level.
We would argue that all families should organize their diets this way, and if you make it known that this will be your approach for your entire family, he will not feel like he is being deprived or singled out. The emphasis shifts from a negative focus on body shape to adopting a healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, by modeling the behavior yourself, you will be sending him a powerful message.
If your son is not exercising regularly, we would certainly be in favor of your encouraging him to do so. Not only does regular exercise increase the body's basal metabolic rate, it also affords protection against adult heart disease. Any regular exercise will do, whether it be tennis, bike riding, walking or swimming.
Again, it may be helpful for the family to exercise together (with activities such as bike riding) so he does not view this as a punishment directed toward him. If there is a particular sport he likes but cannot afford the equipment, your offering to provide the equipment would be a wise investment in his health.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.
Pub Date: 8/06/96