First Person

Ask an Expert: My child is overweight, what to do?

Editor’s note: This question came in after we ran a post about what to do when your daughter says she’s fat. 

Q. What if your daughter IS overweight?  How does a parent handle this issue without causing disordered eating? We have made healthy meals and snacks a priority in our home and physical activity a part of our lives, yet she still is overweight.  

A. This is such a terrific question.  There are so many “moving parts,” no pun intended! The body needs food, water, exercise, managed stress, sleep and sunshine. (I added sunshine to this list, but there is scientific backing for it.)

With some detective work and some positive intentions, this doesn’t have to be a continued issue. And whatever you do, do not put your daughter on a diet.

First a little “food for thought.” We have such a focus, as a society, on weight and appearance.

It’s important to understand some of the underlying factors: Fitness level, muscle strength, structure or build, eating habits (later night eating or eating sugar at night can turn into stored weight), cravings, emotional style (does she express or hold emotions in?), stress level, and sleeping habits. If she’s a taller girl, she may have larger bone structure and higher muscle mass.

Kids grow at different rates and that’s OK

I have worked with many kids who appear “heavy” to the normal eye, and especially during certain parts of their childhood. They are some of the fittest most athletic children but don’t appear that way all the time. Health is based on more factors than just weight.

The interesting part is that when these seemingly “heavy” kids grow up they end up perfectly within the “normal” range. The growth cycle is funny: Oftentimes kids will either grow “wide” before they grow taller, or they get really thin and long before they fill out.

Kids need approximately 60 minutes of intensive exercise six days a week. If she’s playing sports, I’m assuming that part is covered. In fact, some bodies may tend to “hold” more weight if the exercise is too extensive, mostly as a protective measure.  Too much exercise appears to the body like extra stress.

Is your child under stress?

Next, where she carries her weight is another component. Weight around the face, on the back, or around the belly can be an overproduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is naturally produced by the adrenal glands to help us respond to stress and challenges. But during times of too much adrenaline release, the body stores unused energy (calories or food) as fat (like extra storage). What produces excess cortisol? Things like conflict or resistance think of it like the flight or flight helper. Or it can be overproduced from lack of sleep. Kids her age need about nine to 10 hours of sleep each night.

I lovingly liken it to a protective flotation device around the middle during times of difficulty. This is also when we become emotional eaters, often trying to “eat” our feelings, or get rid of uncomfortable emotions. Or it can be other emotional issues going on under the surface, things like feeling bad about ourselves, or a low self-esteem.

Typically, an “emo eater” will go toward things with a high amount of calories, fat, or sugar. Salty or sweet, the food does taste good and solve our primal need for comfort.

Food is the fuel to help kids get that exercise and is just as important as the exercise itself.

A calorie is not a calorie

This is the part that may be the most frustrating to your daughter because not every type of food works the same on every body. A calorie is not just a calorie. Some kids can eat any amount of junk or food they please, and yet never gain an ounce! Some bodies don’t react as well to a heavy load of carbohydrates or sugar. And during stressful times, the food isn’t used as efficiently as it is during more peaceful times.

There are also typical food allergies that a body can create a “fight” with certain types of foods. I’m “sensitive” to gluten (very common), and I’m sensitive to sugar (less common).  You can take advanced blood tests, (called the ALCAT), do skin tests with an allergist, or I’ve seen results from more holistic methods through chiropractors or acupuncturists.

No easy answers

There is no easy way or one simple solution to this. I would never recommend even coming near the word “diet” when working with kids.

Here are some things to try:

  • Introduce the idea of outside-the-box solutions when it comes to food and nutrition, even making it fun. One idea is “mindful” eating. What foods “feel” good, taste good, smell good…engage all the senses.
  • Cut out sugars and high fructose corn syrup (and it’s mates) out of your diets. Move toward a more natural approach to foods, also cutting out processed foods that have been chemically altered to taste yummy. We don’t always know the results that these chemicals have on our bodies.
  • Start the entire family on the track of learning about healthy or organic eating. As much as I love protein, you can even try going vegetarian one meal a day. Or a whole week. Change up the type of foods, trying new vegetables or everyone in the family has to create or cook one new healthy recipe a week. My friend, Julie Hammerstein, is a terrific nutritionist who uses the concept of Go, Slow and Whoa foods – the idea being that kids can learn which foods are good for them, are OK for them, and are not healthy, and also what a proper portion size looks like.
  • Bring positive attention to foods, and not negative attention to your daughter’s shape. This is the ultimate goal. There are so many ways to tackle this situation, and it can be about the whole family.

Please keep us informed on your progress, and we can all share the lessons.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.