Helping Girls Become Strong Women: Being Healthy and Feeling Great

By: Dana Rofey, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Psychiatry, and Psychology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and Anne Marie Kuchera, LPC, RD, licensed practitioner of counseling and registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC

139965483aThis week is not only Women’s Health Week, but also the time of year when many adolescents may be thinking about prom and summertime. It’s always a hard balance to make healthy decisions while thinking positively about their bodies. Women’s Health Week provides [yet] another opportunity to focus on healthy choices, well-being, and positive self-esteem. Below, we outline very simple ways to achieve health while optimizing lifestyle change (NOT dieting and/or over-exercising). It is important to have an ongoing conversation with your daughter about how she views herself, and to think about ways you can continue to empower her.

Sometimes the various fad diets and exercise regimens can be confusing. Do any of them work? How will my daughter feel if she sticks to it? What is the “perfect” number on the scale?

We know from decades of research that changing lifestyle habits that can be maintained long-term is the most helpful approach. While diets may work short-term, they can be unhealthy and sometimes detrimental for the developing body. We also know that increased physical activity is just as important for long-term health consequences; but, again, slow and steady wins the race.

Let’s Go!™ is helping kids and families eat healthy and be active. For adolescents, it is important to have a consistent message about health — “5-2-1-0” every day:

5 – Fruits and vegetables per day: While it sounds like a lot, eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day is achievable. Half of a banana with a bowl of whole-grain cereal in the morning; an apple and a serving of baby carrots at lunchtime; low-fat yogurt topped with strawberries for an afternoon snack; and finally, a side of green beans and a green salad with dinner. Fill half of your family’s plates with fruits and vegetables at each meal, and you’ll be at five plus daily servings in no time.

2 – Hours or less of recreational screen time: This means any screen time — television, video games, handheld devices, and tablets. Too much screen time can lead to overweight and obesity, in addition to attention problems. Watch less, play more.

1 – Hour or more of physical activity: Get moving and keep it fun! For kids, activity that’s fun is activity that sticks. Encourage outdoor games and play, make family time active time, and be a role model for a healthy and active lifestyle.

0 – Sugary drinks, more water and low-fat milk: Sugary drinks cause dental cavities and are associated with overweight and obesity in children. Water is necessary for life, and the nutrients in milk help build strong bones, teeth, and muscles.

Making health and wellness a family affair is one of the best predictors of childhood health. Even if “someone in the family is naturally thin,” he/she can still benefit from making healthy choices. Having family dinners, especially during the summertime, and frequenting farmers’ markets and/or food co-ops can be a fun way to incorporate your children into the daily cooking routines.

Visit for specific recipes that incorporate a serving of grain, protein, fruit, vegetable, and dairy (the Healthy Plate) into each meal. Make physical activity fun — get outside and enjoy the weather, and figure out ways to increase the amount of physical activity each day.

A related aspect to healthy eating for many adolescent girls is developing a healthy body image. As parents, you probably strive to help your daughters see themselves in a positive light. Here are a few steps to help your daughter:

Step 1: Help your daughter discover her body image strengths and weaknesses. She has her own distinctive appearance and her experience of how she looks. Do not immediately negate anything she says; hear her, reflect her feelings, and ask her how you can be helpful in supporting her to feel better.

Step 2: If your daughter has a negative body image, ask her why. Ask her what experiences shape these thoughts and whether she feels as though there are any open doors to change these negative thoughts and/or make them more positive. Be a positive role model; do not let your daughter overhear your own negative thoughts about yourself. Also, be open to hearing how your thoughts/comments affect your daughter’s thoughts about her own body.

Step 3: A negative body image can be emotionally draining. Talk with your daughter about the fact that feeling self-conscious or even ashamed about her looks impairs her ability to feel in charge of her life.

Step 4: Typically, you feel what you think. How your daughter feels about her looks is influenced by the beliefs she has about herself. Discuss assumptions about appearance and conversations your daughter may or may not have with peers about her body.

Step 5: Begin to help your daughter turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts. While this is the most challenging step, identifying the times when she is thinking negatively is a huge first step to feeling better about herself.

Step 6: A negative body image may lead her to act in ways that protect her from uncomfortable feelings (for example, not going out with friends because she doesn’t like the way she looks). Avoidance can sometimes make her body image worse — after all, it only prevents her from having fun. Learning that these behaviors are self-defeating will be an important step for change. Summertime can be an especially hard time to feel good about herself with people all around her wearing shorts, T-shirts, and bathing suits.

Step 7: Creating a positive body image is important. At times (and sometimes frequently), the negative thoughts will come back, but it is important for your daughter to recognize these thoughts, and to challenge herself to come up with healthier ones.

Step 8: Planning ahead for possible challenges is an important step for staying healthy.

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