I’m going to open a big can of worms.
I’m getting ready for people to throw tomatoes at me and yell at me.
But, please, please, can we talk honestly about something today? I really think we need to have a conversation about the fact that our kids are becoming increasingly obese.
I’m not trying to make anyone feel badly. And I do believe that one’s character matters more than one’s waistline.
But I worry that we’re so scared to make people feel badly about their weight that we’re just not being truthful. Obesity is a serious issue in North America today–and it’s becoming more and more common and more and more extreme. My daughters were both lifeguards and swimming teachers in high school, and they were seeing kids as young as 4 years old who were obese in their classes.
Are we doing enough as a church community and as family units to set up our kids for good health? And what can we do better? Because I’ve noticed some things about teenagers and weight problems:
1. Our Kids Are Growing Up Eating Almost Solely for Pleasure
They are growing up in a culture that eats for pleasure far more than other cultures did, because we have so much food. I eat when I’m bored sometimes, too. Don’t you? You have nothing to do, so the first thought that comes into your head is, “what’s in the fridge”? Many of our children naturally think of food, too, when they’re bored, and hence so much of their social life exists around food. And because we have so much choice, food is expected to taste good because you have options. Kids snack like there is no tomorrow, whereas in previous generations it was expected you had three meals a day and maybe a piece of fruit like an apple if you got hungry in between. Sitting in front of the TV with a bag of chips just didn’t happen unless it was a special family TV night.
A dear woman I know who heads up a ministry aimed at junior high kids told me about a day she spent with several girls, where all the girls did was want to eat. They ate a huge breakfast–far larger than this woman ate herself–and then an hour later asked when the next snack was. Everytime food was brought out they grabbed handfulls of it and stuffed it in, and consumed just as large a lunch. She figures they ate as many calories by 11 that morning as she normally eats all day.
Many children don’t seem to have a switch that says, “I’m full now”. They love the feeling of stuffing themselves, and the idea that “I am not particularly hungry right now” has never stopped them from eating before, so why should it now?
2. Kids Aren’t Learning How to Have Healthy Relationships with Food
When our oldest (Rebecca) was around 7, a little friend down the block used to hang out at our house constantly. I still remember the day she ate her first stick of celery. She didn’t know what it was. The only vegetables she had ever eaten were carrots and cucumber. And she had never eaten any vegetable cooked (unless you count french fries).
We served her stew one night and she didn’t know what to do with it, though once she tried it she liked it.
More than was the case a few decades ago, kids are growing up not knowing about fruits, veggies, and nutrition. KFC is healthy because it’s chicken, and chicken is good for you, right? But what happens when kids grow up without any basic knowledge of nutrition and see food as a boredom-killer more than their body’s fuel is they start not knowing how to have a healthy relationship with the food they eat. Kids overeat when they’re stressed, bored, happy, or sad simply because they’ve been taught that eating makes them feel good or is the best way to reward themselves. And that leads to a lot of obesity.
3. Teenage Obesity Affects the Rest of Their Lives
Being obese in childhood leads to lots of health issues, of course. But I don’t think we truly understand that it also affects kids’ lives relationally.
Here are the facts: In marriageable years, people tend to look first at appearance. That doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually look deeper, but appearance matters. And a large part of that is weight. I’m not saying anyone needs to be a size 4. But if you’re carrying an extra 50 pounds or more, it will deter your chances of finding a mate. It simply will.
Researchers have found that if a man is obese at 18, he is half as likely to be married at 40 as his average-sized peers. And men care about weight even more than women do, so it’s likely affecting women even more than it does men. In fact, other studies have found that in general, people are 20% more likely to get married if they are not overweight.
Your first instinct reading that may be to say, “That’s not fair! Men should learn to look what’s on the inside, since that’s what really counts.” And yes, I agree that who the person is matters far more than what they look like.
But the desire to be with someone of a healthy weight isn’t just that men are shallow, or a sign that a guy is looking at a woman like a sex object. The reality is that if someone is medically obese, that often means something about their lifestyle or their ability to do some activities. If a guy wants a wife who can be his partner through adventures, that’s not as much about appearance as it is just how well that woman will fit into his lifestyle.
As well, someone who is medically obese at 20 is more likely to have severe health issues later in life. So people choose to pursue people who are less likely to struggle with health problems if they have the choice.
We need to figure out how to honestly talk about weight problems without introducing unhealthy beliefs about food, weight, and personal value.
I like looking pretty. And because I’m married, I try a little harder. I think looking nice for your man is a good thing, because it keeps the marriage fresh, and I want him to enjoy coming home to me.
However, I certainly don’t want people to think that our self-esteem should be primarily rooted in how we look, or that we all need to be super skinny to be worth something. Enough negative messages about beauty pervade our culture that I don’t want to add to them.
Yet I know that all of us, and especially our kids, do need to understand some basic things about health and about food.
Are you in that same boat? Do you know that you need to make a change–but you’re not sure how? Until I was pregnant with Rebecca I never really thought about what food I ate. I just ate so that I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t think about nutrition at all. And it’s only been lately that I’ve realized how I treat food like pleasure rather than fuel that is also fun. There’s a big difference.
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But now let’s talk, too: have you noticed this with young people? That they seem to eat to cure boredom? What do you think we can do to cultivate a better relationship between food and our kids? Let’s talk in the comments!