The psychology of childhood obesity

It’s simple when you think about it. We gain weight when we take in more calories than we burn. “It’s what we call a positive energy balance,” says Monica J. Mitchell, Ph.D., associate professor and pediatric psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, who has worked with more than 1,500 children and their parents in school-based, after school and summer programs to promote healthy eating, physical activity and water intake. Despite efforts to help kids get healthier, turning around the upward obesity trend is a challenge. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and SheKnows tackles the psyche aspect of kids tipping the scale.

Why did childhood obesity rates triple in the past three decades and what surprises you about the obesity epidemic?

Dr. Monica J. Mitchell: Compared to 30 years ago, we eat more foods today that are high in fat, more fast food and we eat fewer fruits and vegetables. We also know that healthy food costs more (fruits and vegetables cost 40 percent more than they did 30 years ago when you adjust for inflation). At the same time, children spend more time watching television, playing video games, using their iPads and computers, and less time playing outside and being physically active. What has been most surprising about the obesity epidemic is how simple it is to understand the problem but how hard it is to address it, because we are too busy to cook and exercise. The best practices are clear in that we know what works but changing and improving behavior is very difficult.

Be a role model

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month which helps educate families about healthy eating and exercise, but what do parents need to understand about childhood obesity from a psychological standpoint?

Dr. Mitchell: It is essential that parents understand that it’s much easier to encourage healthy behavior in young children than it is to change unhealthy behavior in older children. You can help your children establish healthy eating and physical activity habits early in life. Even though it may be hard to get children to eat their fruits and vegetables, or to eliminate sodas, if you’re persistent, your efforts will pay off as their children will be the ones requesting healthier foods as they get older.

"You are your child’s first and best role model."

You are your child’s first and best role model when it comes to inspiring them to live a healthy life. So when children ask to go outside and play or to go to the park, how we respond, whether we say, “Yes, that’s a great idea... let’s go!” or “No, I am too tired... maybe next week,” has an impact on how children think about physical activity and whether they will ask again or sit and watch TV the rest of the week.

What are the serious behavioral and mental effects of obesity in kids?

Dr. Mitchell: Some children who are overweight and obese have social and emotional difficulties as a result. We know that this has to do with the fact that children with weight difficulties are more likely to be teased and bullied which can also affect their self-esteem and mood. We also know that some children’s social-emotional difficulties are quite serious and may contribute directly and indirectly to eating and weight problems. Parents should consult their doctor or a mental health professional if they are concerned.

Partner up

How can parents help kids with weight-related concerns feel better about themselves?

Dr. Mitchell: Be unconditionally loving and supportive while also partnering with your children and their pediatrician about how to best address weight concerns. Work with your kids to develop motivational strategies for increasing healthy eating, physical activity, and other healthy lifestyle behaviors. Some children may feel motivated for example, if parents and all members of the family are willing to eat healthy along with them. Other children may feel motivated if they reengage in their favorite sport or if they start walking just 15 minutes a day. Others might decide that they are willing to cut sodas as a first step to healthier living.

Blaming and shaming are strategies that will very likely make kids feel worse about themselves and are also likely to make them feel unsupported in the parent-child relationship. A critical component is that the parents will need to commit to the partnership and to providing the necessary positive support for the benefit of your kids’ long-term health.

Hey, moms

How do you encourage healthy eating and an active lifestyle in your home? Share your thoughts and stories in Comments below.

Read more expert parenting advice

Parenting Guru: Do you blow off your kids?
Parenting Guru: Can your kids relate cross-culturally?

Parenting Guru: Are you an empowered parent?


Recommended for you


Comments on "Parenting Guru: Are your kids a healthy weight?"

Kendra September 11, 2012 | 10:32 AM

I try and keep junk food out of the house. We also limit how often we eat fast food, and when we do, we try to eat the "healthier" options. I don't ever have regular soda in the house or even juice, only milk and water. I think the best advice though is to lead by example. If your kids see you eating healthy, they will want to as well.

+ Add Comment

(required - not published)