5 Tools To Help Overweight Kids
Help Overweight Kids
Jonathan: Hey, everyone. Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. I’m very, very excited to share today’s guest with you because she has a special place in my heart, not only because the work she does is profound and chill-inducing – and we’ll get into why in a moment – but she’s also the first person ever, to my knowledge, to reference the Smarter Science of Slim in her very own book! She sent me a copy and I said, “Hey, look! She cited my book in her book!” So if for no other reason, I’m thankful for that; but we should all be much more thankful of our guest today, which is Brenda Wollenberg. She has a long, many-decade history in social work, helping people deal with obviously very tough situations, and then she turned her passions to nutrition and she is a holistic nutritionist. She’s taken those two diverse skill sets of social work and holistic nutrition and written a book called Overweight Kids in a Toothpick World. She has a website called KidsInBalance.net and she has taken on the Herculean task of helping families deal with childhood obesity, a disease epidemic. Wow! Talk about impactful social work. Brenda, thank you and welcome to the show.
Brenda: Thank you so much, Jonathan. Good to be here.
Jonathan: Brenda, what inspired you, first, to go into social work and then, to re-direct or augment your efforts with nutrition?
Brenda: A lot of people end up in social work because they come from slightly dysfunctional families, so I would say a part of it is that, but the other part of it is simply just really believing that there can be certain practices put into place that can really change your life. That started off with the whole emotional, psychological way that we view things, the way that we can grow and develop.
I particularly enjoy working with children. When I was in social work, I worked a lot with fairly disturbed adolescents and really enjoyed helping them grow and move, but I also then became a very sick, very unhealthy social worker just due with the stress of the job, the long hours, and now that I’m aware of it – the shots of cortisol going through your system on numerous times in the day. So I began to do some research for myself and get healthy and as that changed, I thought, “Man, I really need to blend these two. You can’t just do one or the other. We’ve got to be mind and body healthy.” So that’s the impetus for Kids In Balance.
Jonathan: Now, Brenda, how much of your time and mind share is spent….? I mean, obviously you have a holistic approach, but is your practice now primarily focused on nutrition or is it really the whole person still?
Brenda: It really is the whole person. Technically, I no longer practice social work, but there would not be a day that goes by in my practice that I’m not using principles I was trained in to work with people, see the connection with food and emotion, some of the foundational reasons why they have difficulty reaching the goals they say are important to them. It’s absolutely holistically intertwined; I’ve given up trying to separate which is which and just go with it.
Jonathan: The thing that struck me about your book Overweight Kids in a Toothpick World – and this struck me way before I actually saw the reference to my own work, so I liked it before I saw that! – was…
Actually, folks, this is a true story. I read Brenda’s book on an airplane trip back home and I had a young member of my family who was struggling with overweight and I handed her mother a copy of Brenda’s book. I’m not sure you can give a higher endorsement than that, so I do salute Overweight Kids in a Toothpick World!
Now, Brenda, I want to give the readers a bit of a gift. Help them to understand your approach – the approach you presented in this book – and why it is different, because it is. Health books are very derivative, often. I found your health book not to be derivative.
Brenda: Thank you. I think the primary reason that book works is that it is a working practical application. I mean, I’m a huge fan of research and education – to my detriment sometimes – and so there’s certainly an educational component in the book and in the Kids in Balance programs that we run. I believe that you have to tap into that right brain sympathetic side and actually help people realize that there are some foundational underpinnings for the reasons I would be suggesting they do something different. I think if you don’t have a really good reason – like a strong ‘why?’ – for the choices that you’re moving towards, then when things get shaky and something else comes up and you weren’t planning for that situation to occur, you kind of lose it. So, there’s definitely an educational component.
The other aspects that are woven through the book and through our program are much more to do with the emotional or left brain side of us. I really infuse that I think with hope – because I really believe that people can change – that there is lots of history of that in the people that I’ve worked with, and just in history in general, that people can learn different ways of doing things.
Secondly, again tapping into that right side of our brain, is – and you’re going to get the hippie social worker trained in 1980s here – I keep trying to think of a better word for this but I haven’t yet, which is simply ‘empowerment’. I say to people, “What kind of legacy do you want to leave for your kids? What are you currently doing well in your family?” No one is really starting at zero. Most of us have made some movements towards increased health and wellness and towards healthier weight range, so “What do you want to pass down to your kids? How can I help you move with that?” Really, empowering people.
I think, many parents today are just confused. They go and stand in Chapsters or they go into Amazon and they go, “Oh my goodness! There are 18 million books here that I could use that would help me learn how to better raise my children!” We forget that intuitively, we actually have a lot of information that just resonates and we just kind of go, “Okay, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Let me think. We didn’t used to eat this way.” I often cite your history of eating thing – like, ‘man alive for only 3 seconds, we’ve been eating something like this, and only 1 second for anything like this.’ People can resonate with that and go back to what their grandparents ate or their great-grandparents ate.
So, a lot of that hope and that empowerment and then, the last part of that right brain side would be courage. I say to people, “If what you’re doing is not getting you where you want to go, it’s time to make a switch.” Again, a lot of educational, but connection with, understand that the big food industry people do not care about you. I’m sorry. That’s reality. They’re publicly traded. Their goal is to produce income. They have to. They’re mandated to do that, but they really don’t care about the health of your 10-year-old or your 13-year-old, which is why they can say to you, “A pop a day is a good option” or whatever. So, be courageous because you are going to be swimming upstream. I guess my goal is to have way more families swimming upstream, so that becomes the norm.
Jonathan: What struck me also about your work, Brenda, is your recommendations are just not these cookie… I mean, the standard recommendation is that kids just need to move more and that’s not necessarily wrong – that’s true – but what are the things you see in the standard generic prescription for childhood obesity that makes you shake your head and say, “Either that’s incomplete or that’s wrong.”?
Brenda: This is a three hour interview right? I’m kidding. I think the main things are there’s just not a recognition of the head space that kids are in and the reality that the whole ‘calories in, calories out’ formula – that you so, in a lovely manner, discount over and over again in your book – is that that doesn’t work. I won’t name the different programs, but virtually, as far as I know, mine’s the only program that doesn’t go with a moderate calorie-reduction, low-fat, bump-up-the-exercise, get-your-child-to-log-everyday-for-an-hour-and-a-half…whatever. It just doesn’t make sense. That’s not how we used to live. It’s not practical in today’s world. People try that for a while, they have kids that are complaining about it, they really don’t enjoy the foods that they’re eating. The idea of getting a child that’s 10 years old to the gym for an hour to an hour-and-a-half a day – this is simply not reality. Those programs may work for a time with a lot of almost like whip-cracking, if it were of the parent, but they’re not sustainable and they are not based on real life. I’d much rather people learned how to eat real food as close as possible to its original form. I don’t want them to become food fanatics. They need to have room for celebration. You may have seen the food health pyramid that I designed in the book. The very top category is actually some celebration foods and families need to figure out ways to incorporate that in ways that are healthy and life-giving long-term.
Jonathan: Brenda, you not only have clinical practice with this, but you have personal experience with this. Right?
Brenda: Exactly. Multitudes of experience with this. We have five children and they range in ages from 17 to 29. We have children that have very different body or metabolic types, so again, one of the challenges that I find with many of the programs that are out there for children who are carrying extra weight or unwell and have a lack of energy or whatever, is that they’re a one-size-fits-all program. I speak in copious amounts of experience that not one single one of my children is genetically identical to the other four that we have. Learning the hard way, trying to be a vegetarian family for a number of years when it was very clear that my husband – dramatic background, lived on meat 18 times a day – was probably not a good candidate for a raw vegan lifestyle. Those were huge learning curves for me 20-25 years ago.
Then, seeing those differences genetically in our children, being able to feed the ones that need to have a much higher percentage of, say, healthy fats and proteins, the couple that are a little more like me that can tolerate a few more of the complex starchier foods, but just really helping our children, and then in turn, my clients, figure out the fuel mix that their body is best designed to function on. That’s not common. You don’t see that in books. It’s ‘do this, get your child eating this, so many servings of this a day, and if they’re hungry, tough luck!’ Whatever. It’s just like we’re not helping kids to be in tune with their body, we’re not helping them to figure out what gives them energy, what balances their moods, we’re not empowering them to take a better hold of their own health.
Jonathan: Brenda, I’m not a parent myself, but I can imagine – and sometimes I actually feel uncomfortable talking about this because I’m not a parent – so can you help me, help others, and help our listeners – how do we balance? From the outside looking in as a non-parent….
Just this weekend, I went to the waterfront in Kirkland, Washington, where I live, and just the number of children who are significantly overweight is just heartbreaking. How do you balance? You don’t want to guilt-trip people, but it is. I mean, if you have a child who’s overweight, it’s just such a travesty in terms of their metabolic health and their emotional health and their social health, but you can’t just guilt-trip everyone. How do we avoid just making everyone feel terrible about themselves and focus instead on solving the problem?
Brenda: I think the first thing is to really understand that there are probably very few parents worldwide who don’t want the best for their kids, who don’t want them to be healthy and have lots of energy and not be carrying extra weight, etc. etc. I don’t think I’ve ever found a parent who didn’t care about that, but the problem is that there is a lot of confusion.
I would say the first thing to do is to really come alongside parents who have kids that are overweight or obese and help them understand that you understand how they feel – that they’re probably confused, there’s probably a lot of guilt-tripping already going on. They don’t need us to add to that. When I work with a child, I work with a family. For many of them, there are patterns of dysfunctional eating or a lack of understanding of eating in parents as well, so they are modeling things that, for them sometimes, are hard to give up because they have their own emotional connections to food or their own things that they’re unraveling around why they go to certain things for comfort or whatever. For sure, having them understand that we get their pain and that we aren’t judging them and that we actually want to help them unravel that themselves so they can then be a more helpful model and set better practices in place in their family.
Jonathan: Brenda, I think you hit the nail on the head there because, yes, what parent is going to knowingly poison… I mean, parents don’t give their children cigarettes, so that’s why I’ve always struggled – it is a knowledge problem. If you know something is truly bad for your child, I have yet to ever meet a parent who hands their child a cigarette. Even though it might be lovely and it’s a celebration, you still don’t give the child cigarettes because you know it’s bad; but I’ve met many, many parents who, every edible product they give their child, they give to their child because they do believe it’s healthy, because the package says it is or it’s fortified or it gives you energy to play or it’s got healthy whole grains in it. How do we combat that? They are doing the best with the information they’ve been given, it’s just the information they’ve been given is either from corrupt sources or it’s just bad information.
Brenda: Correct. Exactly. That’s where we go back to the education part and we actually work with parents to help them understand that, but then we give them two roles so that they can actually put that into place with their children. For example, if I am teaching in an elementary setting, I bring in activity centers. So we’ll have an activity center that is a label-reading activity, but unlike typical ‘looking for the healthy heart signal’ or whatever, recommended by the American Dietary Association or whatever, we look at ingredients. We’re not looking at calorie count; we’re looking at ‘Is it real food?’ We’re looking at ‘Are there ingredients in there we don’t recognize?’ We’re looking at – you’d be very happy to hear this – protein-carbohydrate ratio. We’re looking at ‘Where is the fat coming from?’
We’re actually teaching people how to teach their children to be little sheriffs in the grocery market. Again, even within that, we’ll often do kind of like a traffic light thing where we’ll have a red placemat and a green placemat and a yellow placemat and have them put it down based on who they are. For someone that is an extreme protein type, even a really healthy quinoa kind of a dish would not necessarily be something that they could have very often, so they start to learn also that in their family, maybe someone might be able to eat something a little more often than they do. We’ll do activities like that that again are things that parents can do in the home with their younger children.
Having worked a lot with teens in social work and then, obviously, having my own, I will resort to absolutely tapping it to what is primarily important to them and a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff when I’m teaching in high schools around, “Okay, the name of my talk today is ‘How To [Indiscernible 16:57] Skin’ – look good for people you want to look good to and maybe get an A in your personal planning class.” You have to tap into what is important to teenagers. They are not thinking, “Oh my goodness! Seriously?! Are you telling me if I eat really well right now, that when I’m 50, I can run a half marathon, I’m going to look super amazing, and I’m not going to have joint pains.” They’re thinking, like, Friday, maybe, if this is Thursday. We have to recognize that and give them things that are short-term, recognize that they don’t have the same ability to delay gratification. Believe it or not, they need their parents to actually parent and not have certain things in the house and be able to actually set some boundaries.
I’ll tell you a quick little story. I had a client come in with their family and she was just saying that one of her children was eating a lot more potato chips lately than normal and they were kind of concerned about that. I knew them well enough to be able to, tongue-in-cheek, say to this little 8-year-old, “Oh! Do you have a job since I saw you last?” He goes, “No! I don’t have a job.” I go, “Oh, so you’re now in charge of buying the groceries in the house?” He goes, “I don’t buy the groceries in my house.” And the mom was able to sit there and go, “Bingo! Yes, the reason we’re having so many potato chips in the house is because I am buying them and bringing them in.” So, being able to help parents see that they do need to parent; they don’t have to be their kids’ best friend, they need to get them through the healthy eating and lifestyle with things – the same way they get them through doing their chores, doing their homework, those kind of things as well.
Jonathan: I love it. I love it! Brenda, what’s next for you and the Kids In Balance effort?
Brenda: Well, currently we mainly do on-location programs and some online programs, but this fall is a really big push to go digital. We have lots of people in different parts of the country. We’ve got some interest in Mexico, the Spanish-speaking population. There’s a lot of childhood obesity happening in Mexico. Their rates are kind of coming up to ours. So we’re looking at moving our program similar to the way you do podcasts and being able to have people get information more easily accessible online from their home, but still support them – still offer a nutritionist to work with them online at the same time. That’s kind of where our next step is going.
Jonathan: I love it, I love it! Well, folks, while Brenda is putting together her plan to heal the world – which is a wonderful, wonderful plan – in the meantime, she’s taken great strides and you can enjoy them yourself by picking up a copy of her book, which is Overweight Kids in a Toothpick World, which again, I can say, personally I have read and given to someone in my family who is struggling with these issues – can’t give a higher endorsement than that! So I would recommend picking up a copy. You could also check out her website at KidsInBalance.net. Brenda, thank you so much for all that you do. It’s been an absolute pleasure!
Brenda: You’re welcome. I really enjoyed it.
Jonathan: Everyone, her name is Brenda Wollenberg. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did. Please remember, this week and every week after – eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.
Hi, Brenda here again . . . just wanting to pop in and say a huge thank you to Jonathan for such a well conducted and fun interview! I loved the easy spontaneity and really appreciated the types of questions asked! The only downside to an unrehearsed and live interview, however, is that you can have a major “brain glitch” and it will then be published forever, for all the world to hear and see! Therefore, I’d like to correct my publicly made brain glitch so as to avoid creating confusion. Despite writing a book that includes a large section on body typing, leading many seminars that dealt with the topic of body typing, and working with hundreds of clients to determine their own body type, I still reversed information on the autonomic nervous system aspect of body typing . . . go figure! Please note that contrary to what I said in the interview, the right brain or parasympathetic part (“resting and digesting” system) of the brain is commonly referred to as our more emotional side, and the sympathetic or left brain, our “fight or flight” system, is commonly referred to as our more analytical side. Sorry, that for a few brief seconds mid-interview, it is clear that neither side of my brain was working correctly!”