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Confronting a weighty kids' issue

January 05, 2013
  • Dr. Joanna Dolgoff targets childhood obesity.
Dr. Joanna Dolgoff targets childhood obesity. (Trae Patton / NBC )

Childhood obesity expert Dr. Joanna Dolgoff says parents of obese children would rather talk to their kids about anything — even sex or drugs — than weight. But ignoring it could set a child up for a lifetime of health problems and emotional heartache, she said. The issue of childhood obesity, and Dolgoff's work, will get a national airing Sunday as the new season of the NBC reality weight-loss show "The Biggest Loser" adds three kids — two 13-year-olds and a 16-year-old — to the cast.

The move is already generating plenty of controversy from critics who say it puts too much pressure on the youths in a bid to draw eyeballs. But Dolgoff, a New York-based pediatrician who is serving as show consultant, said the program handles the issue with great sensitivity, and she defended it as necessary to start a national dialogue about childhood obesity. Dolgoff also is author of "Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right," a book aimed at helping children navigate what's on their plate.

Why are parents of overweight children so reluctant to confront the issue head-on? And why do you think they should?

I think what's important is for parents to acknowledge the issue. You know, they did a study — parents would rather talk to their kids about sex or drugs or anything other than weight. But, really, you do need to talk to your child, because overweight children know they're overweight. And if the parents don't talk about it, the kid feels ashamed. It's obvious that it's there, and no one's talking about it. ... As parents, sometimes we have to have tough conversations. That's our job. That's our role. But you do it in the most loving way possible.

What is one of the biggest mistakes parents are making?

I call it portion distortion. Because most parents don't know how much a child or teenager is supposed to eat, and they give their children portions that are way too big. And the studies are clear that when you give your child a larger portion of food, they will eat more.

What, exactly, should a parent say?

I advise parents to sit down at an emotionally neutral time to talk about it and to use the word "we" instead of "you" and to make it about health instead of weight or looks. So, "We could be eating more healthy," [and…] "I'd love for us to learn as a family how to eat healthier so we can be at the healthiest weight for the healthiest hearts and the healthiest bodies…" Saying "I want us to learn healthy eating habits as a family" doesn't put the child on the defensive.

Many parents fear that making weight an issue will drive a child to an eating disorder. But you say the opposite may be true.

Studies seem to indicate if you treat an overweight child in a sensitive manner, you decrease the risk of eating disorders. Because, as I said, overweight children know that they're overweight. So if you're not discussing it with your child and you're not giving them the tools they need to get to a healthy weight, then the kids are going to do their own thing. ... And those are the kids who are going to starve themselves. And then they binge because they can't keep up the starving, so then they purge. And these are the kids that are really at risk for disordered eating. So you have to address it. Even I know parents don't want to, but they have to. And I'm so glad "The Biggest Loser" is addressing it because we have to talk about this. The silence is literally killing our children.

Talk about the methods used in your book, "Red Light, Green Light." No food is off limits, correct?

I keep it very simple for kids, but parents get a lot out of it too. Green light foods are nutritious. Yellow light foods are eaten in moderation. Red light foods — these are occasional treats. You get two of these a week. So it teaches kids and adults to balance things out. If you are going to a birthday party this weekend and you want cake and ice cream, that's when you are going to use your two red light foods. So you are choosing not to have any of those during the week. It's not about calories and weight and depriving ourselves. It's about feeding ourselves nutritious foods and finding ways to fuel our bodies to do all the things we want to do. It gives kids power and control, and kids like that.

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