Overweight Kids Feel More Stress and Words Don't Help

A new survey from the American Psychological Association tells us that overweight kids aren’t happy. In fact, they’re pretty stressed out.

The APA surveyed both adults and young people.  The kids’ survey was conducted online and included 1,136 children age 8-17. Of those who identified themselves as overweight or obese according to their BMIs, 31 %  reported “worrying about their lives” compared with 14 % of their peers whose weight is more typical.

Before I go on with the statistics, I want to point out that I had a hard time describing the weight of kids who aren’t overweight.  In the Time story I first read about this report, those kids are described as being “healthy weight.”  But if you’re an overweight kid, would the comparison to kids with “healthy” weights stress you out?

The Time’s story use of “healthy” to describe kids’ weight might not have struck me if it hadn’t followed a paragraph which states parents who are obese are more likely to have overweight kids as compared to normal-weight parents who have thin kids. I was OK until the “thin kid” part. The paragraph continues: “What’s more, thin parents said they engaged in physical activity with their families more often than fat parents.”

Is there a BMI designation for “thin”? The answer is no. The BMI chart designates “underweight,” “normal range,” “overweight,” and “obese.”  These are categories.  BMI  was created to classify weight, not to establish terms for medical diagnoses.

Everyday we hear about the obesity epidemic in America and how our health as a nation is in crisis because of it.  I am NOT suggesting that obesity does not exist or that it’s not a very big issue. I understand that seriously overweight children and adults face very significant long term health problems and a great deal of money will be spent in the health care system addressing those problems.

I am suggesting that the constant use of “epidemic” and “crisis” and the comparison between “overweight” and “thin” kids can make a person want to lay down and take a nap.

It’s not easy being an overweight kid. They report that they don’t sleep as well at night as their peers in the normal weight range (48% vs. 33%). They get into more fights or feel angry more often (22% vs. 13%), and more often feel like they don’t want to do anything (34% vs. 21%).  They’re more likely to say their parents are “always” stressed out (39% to 30%). (And we know kids know when we’re stressed out.)

There are all kinds of ways we can help kids who struggle with their weight. We can help them make healthier food choices for snacks and meals.  We can talk about moving your body (walking, biking, laying sports, dancing around the living room) as something that makes you feel good and not just something you’re supposed to do to lose weight.

We can also be careful with the words we use and the labels we give.  The word “overweight” can be descriptive.  In the context of a story like the one in Time, given the range of body weights, the “crisis” of the “obesity epidemic” and the complexity of factors contributing to it, words like “healthy”  and “thin” aren’t just adjectives but judgments.

What do you think?  Do words make weight issues more stressful?

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