By Laura Captari
Whether it’s the “holiday blues” or festivities with family and friends, we are all prone to turn to food to meet our emotional needs. Obesity is one of our nation’s greatest health challenges, and a significant concern for those in the helping field. The statistics are shocking:
• More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese.
• Approximately 31% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese.
• Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled.
There a number of well-documented health risks associated with extra weight, including asthma, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and diabetes—not only among adults, but also children. However, obesity is not just a physical concern, it’s also an important mental health concern—and a spiritual concern, as well.
It’s no surprise that the APA’s Monitor on Psychology this month features an article on this very topic. Author Kristen Weir reports, “The repercussions of excess weight extend to the brain…linked to changes in brain structure as well as changes impairments in learning and attention span.” The emotional and cognitive aspects of overeating are important considerations in treatment planning with this population. Oftentimes, stress, emotional difficulties, and faulty self-perceptions fuel overeating and must be addressed in counseling.
Understanding the connection between physical and mental health, where can we start as Christian counselors? How can we empower our clients to develop a healthy lifestyle—emotionally, physically, and spiritually? Here’s several suggestions:
Include the whole family. “The most successful ways to…shed pounds are interventions that combine diet, physical activity and behavioral recommendations,” the article notes. When an entire family recognizes the importance of physical, spiritual and emotional health, they can begin developing a family culture that promotes these values, developing new traditions and routines.
Build a healthy home environment. “The trick is to help parents engineer healthy home environments—removing TVs from bedrooms, limiting computer time, making physical activity a routine for the entire family, and teaching parents how to find and prepare nutritious food on a budget,” Weir shares.
Encourage a healthy, active lifestyle. Preventing and treating obesity isn’t as simple as avoiding “junk food.” While most interventions focus on the negative—telling people what not to eat—it’s important to emphasize the positive as well, such as nutritious holiday foods and ways to incorporate exercise into Christmas activities.
Find emotional support. Meaningful relationships are an important factor in weight loss or maintenance. How easy it is to turn to food, rather than God or other people, when we are hurt, confused, overwhelmed or lonely. As with any other area of change, accountability is critical—not only for exercise, but also to control overeating and find healthier ways to cope with stress.
Incorporate a team approach. Exercise may be helpful, but without addressing the emotional and cognitive issues often underlying compulsive eating, it will likely be difficult to keep weight off. By the same token, the best therapy in the world without appropriate lifestyle changes will not be thoroughly effective either. Building healthy communities requires collaboration between counselors, medical doctors, dietitians/nutritionists, physical trainers, health coaches, and more.
As Christian counselors, we must remember that God’s Word has quite a few things to say about lack of self-control when it comes to eating. In fact, Proverbs speaks strongly about the destructive nature of overeating: “And put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite” (Prov. 23:2). By contrast, we are encouraged, “[W]hether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
How can you help your clients honor God in their eating? This Christmas and New Year’s, encourage your clients to evaluate their holiday lifestyle. More than any other time of the year, the holidays are a season for overeating and overstressing, while exercise and sleep often fall by the wayside. But long after the “holiday cheer” has come and gone, the negative impact of these lifestyle choices can affect our mental, emotional, and even spiritual health.
Laura Captari serves as the Director of Professional and Public Relations at the American Association of Christian Counselors in Forest, VA. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.