Just stop talking about weight with kids, says public health PhD grad

Research explores the impact of obesity-related stigma on young people – and how to end it

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“We should just keep weight out of everyday conversation with our kids.”

PHD Grad Alexa Ferdinands
Alexa Ferdinands

That’s the conclusion Alexa Ferdinands came to after interviewing young people about their experiences with obesity-related stigma for her PhD in health promotion and socio-behavioural sciences in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

“When it comes to nutrition, there are so many other things to talk about, like eating healthfully, maintaining energy, and mental health,” said Ferdinands, who graduated this week. “The blame and shame that comes from individually targeting people for their weight needs to stop.”

Ferdinands’ research involved in-depth interviews with 16 young people aged 15 to 21 who grew up in larger bodies. Despite their origins in diverse countries, including Mauritius, Kenya, Ghana, Romania and Canada, Ferdinands said they had similar experiences.

“Their parents had the best intentions in mind – they were just really concerned about their health and their well-being – but it came across as very discouraging when, for example, your mom’s telling you every day that high blood pressure runs in the family and that you really need to watch your weight, while monitoring your food intake at the table,” she said.

” Some participants just resorted to hiding in their rooms to eat because they didn’t like the surveillance around the house.”

The kids got the message that their self-worth depended on their weight, Ferdinands concluded.

Some of Ferdinands’ study participants developed recommendations for parentshealth-care providers and teachers, which were shared through the website for Obesity Canada, a charity that promotes research, education and advocacy.

For parents, their tips include practical, everyday advice:

  • Don’t question whether your child is really still hungry when they ask for more food. It teaches them to ignore their body’s hunger cues and can harm their relationship with food for years to come.
  • Don’t keep scales in the bathroom.
  • When relatives comment on your child’s body size at family gatherings, speak up and stick up for them because when you’re silent it feels like you’re agreeing with them.
  • Don’t go on crash diets yourself or complain about your own weight in front of your child because you are their role model and they will emulate your behaviour.
  • If you are also living in a larger body, don’t shame your child to help them avoid the same experiences you’ve had because it won’t work.

“We know that teasing people about their weight doesn’t promote healthy behaviour,” Ferdinands said. “It just triggers disordered eating and coping strategies that are unhelpful, such as binge eating or not wanting to exercise in public because of fear of shaming.”

Ferdinands embarked on her research project because she wanted to understand and illuminate young people’s lived experiences.

“A lot of research about weight stigma describes it in a theoretical way,” she explained. “I really wanted to fill the gap and understand, how does it actually happen? Words like stereotypes, prejudice – what do these mean? And what do they actually look like in people’s everyday lives?”

Trained as a dietitian in her home province of British Columbia, Ferdinands worked in various home care, supportive living and acute care settings throughout Alberta. A job at Edmonton’s Adult Bariatric Specialty Clinic inspired her to take up graduate studies focused on young people.

“I was working with adults at the time, but they often told me stories about when they were younger, getting bullied on the playground for their weight, experiences that they could remember vividly from decades ago,” she said.

Ferdinands’ research was supervised by Kim Raine, professor and expert in food policies that affect the choices available to individuals. Ferdinands’ research method of inquiry is known as “institutional ethnography,” developed by famed feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith, who continues to publish at the age of 95.

Ferdinands’ research was supported by the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize and grants from the Edmonton Community Foundation and Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

Ferdinands is now pushing to make a difference for individuals by tackling issues from a broader perspective.

“When I was a dietitian, everyone that came to see me as a patient already knew what healthy eating was,” she said. “They didn’t need me to tell them to eat more vegetables – everyone knows that.

“I felt frustrated because they couldn’t follow through on the advice I was giving them due to a whole bunch of structural barriers like income, their family situation, how much time they have in the day and access to healthy foods.”

Dreaming of one day heading her own research lab, Ferdinands is now pursuing post-doctoral studies with Maria Mayan, a professor whose community-based research in partnership with EndPovertyEdmonton seeks systems-level solutions to population health issues.

And though problems such as obesity and the stigma surrounding it can seem complex and vast, Ferdinands said they are not unsolvable.

“It always comes down to equity. Poverty is a really huge driver. The whole ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ thing really needs to just end.”

| By Gillian Rutherford


Submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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