Q: I’m 19 and still live with my parents and my two younger brothers (the economy is rough, man!). My 9-year-old brother is overweight, and I’m worried about his health. My parents have cut back on how much food he can eat (he used to eat straight-up bacon bits and sour cream as a snack o.O) and they are now only allowing him to drink soda on Fridays. The problem is, after reading your blog, I’ve realized that most of the “healthy” food they’ve deemed acceptable really isn’t. I try to tell them this, but they won’t listen, and they tell me to mind my own business, that they aren’t my kids. For example, I’ve tried telling them that orange juice is about as bad for you as Pepsi…but I can’t get through to them. Besides leading by example, what else can I do to help my brother? He’s already started to call himself a fat kid and it’s almost as if he’s starting to form an identity around his chunkiness, if that makes any sense. I understand that he’s only nine, and he laughs it off now, but if he continues down this path, what will it be like when he’s 12? 17? Will he be bullied? Will he have health problems? I can’t cook for him, and I’m not sure I can change my mom’s cooking habits after 20 years. I can offer him apples, but he’d rather have fruit roll-ups. I can try to take him for walks, but if he’s eating nothing but crap I doubt it’ll help much. Any other suggestions?
I think one of the hardest things about realizing how simple it is to lose/maintain your weight is having to watch people that you love struggle with it… and not want your help or input. And, just for a moment, put yourself in your parents’ shoes – who does this young girl think she is talking to? What could she possibly know about feeding kids that I wouldn’t? Hell, I FED HER!
Not like that’s a rational or even reasonable reaction, but I can think back to my conversations with my mother about food and she wasn’t having any of that – my mother is excellent at the “yeah, I’m listening to you, but I’m really watching my soap opera on mute” phone chatter – until she saw that I’d lost the bulk of my weight. Then, she was all ears. Sometimes, it takes for your loved ones to see that you are the change you wish to see in others; it takes for them to see that you are actively benefitting from the knowledge you’ve gained for them to believe you have any clue what you’re talking about.
That being said, it seems like they’re responding to something… it’s just a matter of pinpointing what that thing is. Would they respond well to yor little brother asking for the things he needs? If the answer is “maybe,” then you need to have a few compassionate chats with your brother.
What is your relationship like with the little guy? Are you constantly picking on him and beating him up? (I mean, this is what younger siblings are for, anyway, but I’m saying’.) Are you constantly razzing him for his weight? Most importantly, does he feel like he can talk about his insecurities with you? If the answer to that question is no, then your first step is to try to build that kind of kinship with him. If I had an elder sibling who was constantly picking on me and poking fun at my insecurities, I certainly wouldn’t want to bare my soul to them. It’s like handing over gasoline and matches to someone holding up a sign that says “I want to light your house on fire.” Doesn’t sound like a good idea to anyone.
In the meantime, do highly-active things like power-walking (not running, especially if he’s not a runner. It’s intimidating for fitness newbies to keep up with an intermediate/advanced runner.) or playing a sport that requires a lot of movement and action, and do it often. Invite him to come with you. Any person who is curious will, most certainly, ask questions like “Is this how you’ve lost weight/stayed in such great shape?” And your answer should be matter-of-fact without feeling yourself too much over the compliment – a smile and a “Yep, just an hour a daconfidence and balancing my eating does the trick.” It’s not about it “doing much for him,” so much as it is about getting and keeping someone in a fitness-focused mindset. It’s about being a small piece in a much larger, more complex conversion. If he thinks he’s taking charge of his fitness, then he may gain the confidence to explore other things like healthy foods.
Once you’ve built a good, trusting relationship with him, then wait a little while and see if he talks to you about anything like bullying and how he feels about his body. He’s obviously aware of the size difference between him and his classmates, and you want to both explain to him that a) it’s okay to be different and b) he needs to be mindful of whatever habits are causing him to gain weight. Because what’s acceptable today, with the same habits, can turn into something like an emotional eating problem, a food addiction or a health concern in the future. The goal is to be preventative, that way we can avoid having to be reactionary.
I’m sure your parents are beating him over the head with rules and regulations for how to lose weight – it’s just what parents do – and it may be taking a toll on his self-esteem so your goal should be to empower him and support him and, yes, carry him through his journey. He’s young. Be a resource to him. Help him build his self-esteem by teaching him how to control his weight. Try to make healthy dishes with what you’ve got at home (or hit up the grocery with $5 spare bucks and buy some frozen veggies to cook with leftover dinner meats, something like that) and if they taste delicious, share them with him. Do that often. People who “avoid” healthy food are often of the mind frame that it can’t be delicious, or that it’s too expensive. You know otherwise, so show them. Pick out recipes and show your mom, asking her to try those. Encourage more fruits and vegetables simply by asking for them for yourself… that way, you can get them in the house, at least. Of course he’s going to choose “fruit snacks” over fruit – anyone who isn’t intentionally fitness/food quality minded would simply because the “fruit snacks” are engineered that way. We choose to toss those things because we know better. You have to be the means by which he learns that lesson, and it starts slowly.
I hope you can see what I’m encouraging you to do, here. Increase the access of healthy foods in your home by asking for them for yourself, and make yourself an open, judgement-free resource to your little brother by being kinder and more inclusive toward him. Only then will you get the success you seek.
(You could also go on the family computer and leave a post from this blog on the screen a few times, just so that they can get exposed to “different” thinking about food, and the community that exists, here. Many people have e-mailed me saying their friends didn’t talk to them about it, but they started seeing their friends names appearing in the comments section, here. Score one for covert enlightenment?)