Why Putting Kids on <i>The Biggest Loser</i> Is a Bad Idea

Despite the gravity of the situation, I am not convinced that the task of informing our society about our childhood obesity crisis should be placed on the shoulders of two 13-year-olds and a 16-year-old, especially with millions watching their personal weight-loss experiences each week.
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For the first time in its 14 seasons, the hit weight loss reality show The Biggest Loser is featuring obese children. If you've seen the show, you know that the producers have made some changes to the show's formula for these kids.

The three teens, who are clinically obese, live at home while participating in the weight-loss interventions, rather than on the ranch. They are not exposed to the same demanding treatments as the adults, they cannot be kicked off the show, and they are each given the title of "ambassador." Their role is to bring attention to our country's childhood obesity crisis and empower others to make better food choices, move more, and work toward a healthier body weight.

One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese. A child is considered overweight if his or her body mass index is at the 85th to 95th percentile for age. If his or her BMI is above the 95th percentile, the child is considered obese. To determine if your child falls in either of these categories, talk to your child's pediatrician or chart it yourself using the Centers for Disease Control growth charts.

When faced with startling statistics like those, it is easy to see why drawing more attention to this epidemic is important. (And in my last post, I emphasized that downplaying the obesity crisis, even in one story, can seriously affect public health.) Despite the gravity of the situation, I am not convinced that the task of informing our society about our childhood obesity crisis should be placed on the shoulders of two 13-year-olds and a 16-year-old, especially with millions watching their personal weight-loss experiences each week.

As a registered dietitian involved in the treatment of overweight children, I am aware of the need for compassion and privacy when working with overweight children and teens. It worries me when the primary focus becomes the number reported on the scale and the weight issue is viewed as something that children or teens can fix on their own. Overweight and obese children are at nearly twice the risk of having other medical, mental, and development conditions when compared with a child in the normal weight range. In addition to issues such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated lipid levels, the concerns run much deeper. The list includes emotional and behavioral problems, depression, learning disabilities, developmental delays, bone-joint problems, muscle weakness, asthma, allergies, headaches, and ear infections. Bullying of overweight children is common, as are harsh comments from peers, coaches, teachers and parents. Because of the multitude of issues that can occur alongside obesity, you can see why recommended treatment usually includes a team of health professionals. Treatment must not only include the child but also the parents or guardians. Though parents should never be blamed for a child's weight, without their involvement, support and encouragement, a child's weight-related problems will not improve.

So what can parents do to improve the health of an overweight child? While parents might assume that they should enforce different sets of rules and offer different foods to the heavy children in their family, this is wrong. Any steps toward weight loss and healthy living should be taken by the entire family, not just those who are overweight or obese. No matter their body size, everyone needs a healthy diet and daily exercise. No one should be able to eat out of bags and boxes 24/7. The following tips are not punishment for being overweight but instead are a life-long plan for wellness -- for the whole family.

1. Go, Team, Go! Do not single out any one child. Everyone in the family needs a healthy eating plan and daily exercise -- not just those struggling with weight. Enlist the extended family if possible. That includes parents, stepparents, grandparents, and even child-care providers. Every adult who prepares food and spends time each week with the child needs to be on board and understand the importance of the lifestyle changes.

Clean out the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Pitch unhealthy foods and fill the kitchen with low-fat dairy products, lean meat and protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks for the entire family. No parent should be a short-order cook, preparing different foods for different family members whenever they ask for it. Set times for meals and snacks. Involve children in the planning process, as well as the preparation of the food. And set the rule that the kitchen is not open 24/7 for continual snacking. Meal planning tips are available at Choose My Plate.

Eat meals and snacks as a family, at the dining table with no other distractions. That means no TV, video games, or phone -- for parents as well as kids. This is the time to communicate with one another and find out how the day went, plan a family outing, or discuss the latest movie release.

Work in 45 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. Don't assume that gym and recess time at school is fitting the bill. It's not.

2. Good Food, Bad Food. All foods can fit into a healthy eating plan. None should be banned or forbidden. On occasion, pack chips in your child's lunch, offer a cookie and milk for a snack, or go out for an ice cream cone. These foods can fit, but they don't need to be readily available, in unlimited amounts. Keep portions in check.

3. Walk the Walk. Don't just talk about how to get healthier -- do it! Instead of just sending your child out to play, go outside and play together. Instead of talking about a healthy snack, prepare one together. When weather is bad, do a kick-boxing or cardio dance DVD together.

4. Shift the Focus. Take the emphasis off the weight and appearance. Focus on your child's healthy habits. Encourage with phrases such as: "Wow, you can really run fast," or "The fruit salad you made is delicious."

5. Little Steps. Simple, small changes can add up and keeps the momentum going. Go for a walk as a family, shoot hoops, take a swim at the local pool, try new recipes, or plant a small garden in your yard or in containers on your deck.

6. Dealing With Boredom. Children report that the main reason they overeat is because they are bored and have nothing to do. Help your child discover activities they will enjoy for life. It may be a physical activity or something intellectual, creative or social. Consider: a community youth sport league, scrapbooking, reading, fishing, knitting, singing, playing a musical instrument, community theater, or joining a scouting program, 4-H, or a religious youth group.

As you view the teens on The Biggest Loser show, count how many of the above tips are being implemented with the children and families. Perhaps we will see actions such as these as the season continues. Maybe I'm old school, or perhaps I'm just an overprotective mother. Either way, in my professional and personal opinions, television (with its millions of viewers) is not the appropriate medium to assist the overweight child and the family. Yes, we will cheer for these teenagers. Yes, we will cry with them. Yes, we will thank them for being such great ambassadors. But in the end are these teens, their parents, and their family members really receiving the interventions to positively impact their life and improve their health for years to come?

For more by Becky Hand, click here.

For more on childhood obesity, click here.

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