Forty-three percent of Chicago-area students are overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 12 to 19 years are considered obese. That's 12.5 million kids. We know that childhood obesity often leads to a myriad of health problems -- diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, to name a few -- yet health care professionals and school administrators are loath to discuss the subject with youth who are currently overweight.
Many organizations and programs are addressing the prevention of childhood obesity -- a critical piece of the puzzle -- but very few are helping young people who already are overweight.
Especially ignored are teenagers struggling to achieve a healthy weight. Too often these young people are also grappling with an array of other adolescent issues, which are exacerbated by the fact that they are overweight. Studies show a significant correlation between youth obesity and depression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, and violence.
Talking about youth overcoming obesity is taboo. As a nation, we seem to think that the best way to encourage weight loss is through bullying and shaming. Recent examples in the media -- Twitter's Fat Shaming Week and the parent who refused to give Halloween candy to overweight trick-or-treaters -- reinforce that it is still acceptable to ostracize people who are overweight -- and that we don't have enough positive examples of what does work to motivate young people to adopt healthy lifestyles.
The solution is to talk with young people -- all young people -- about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, about good nutrition and exercise. For youth who are already overweight or obese, we must provide support and encouragement, not finger-pointing and blame, and guide them on a path to a healthier and happier life. They need mentors who understand the journey of significant weight loss, easy-to-follow steps, real-world and medically-sound nutrition, and fitness programs that help them to achieve and, even more importantly, sustain a healthy weight for the rest of their lives.
• Shannon Downey is executive director at Downsize for Life, a nonprofit program in Naperville and Chicago for overweight youth. Learn more at www.downsizeforlife.org.