How do I know if my child has a weight problem?
There's no simple answer, since children grow in spurts. Boys especially tend to put on weight and look plump for a period and then suddenly shoot upward and slim down. If you're worried, talk to your child's doctor, who can measure your child's weight and height to determine if he falls within the range that's considered normal. Your pediatrician can also assess your child's age and growth patterns to tell if this is a growth spurt or a real weight problem.
Although being heavy doesn't put your child at immediate risk for health problems, it does increase the likelihood that he'll grow up to be an overweight adult.
How can I help my child lose weight?
First, be supportive. Make sure your child always knows he's loved and valued, regardless of whether he's thin or fat. As children approach puberty, they typically become very self-conscious about their looks. If your child is overweight, chances are he's more aware of it than anyone. That's why it's so important to encourage your child to talk about his feelings.
Luckily, the best advice for maintaining a healthy weight is the same as for overall good health: plenty of physical activity and a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. However, if you decide that it's important to improve your child's eating or exercise habits, don't single him out. Involve your whole family in making a change for the better, appealing to your crew's interests and team spirit. Encourage your family to bike to the park three nights a week instead of watching TV, for example. Or try saying, "Let's each find a light recipe that stars our favorite vegetable." Getting your entire family to participate improves your chances of making the change last and will benefit everyone.
What's more important -- getting more exercise or eating a better diet?
Both are equally important. Children become overweight when they consume more calories than they burn during the day in physical activity and in the process of growing. Successful weight management programs focus both on increasing the number of calories burned and limiting the calories consumed. People at all ages, but especially children, usually find it easier to be more active than to restrict the amount of food they eat.
How can I encourage my child to be more physically active?
Reduce the amount of time you and your family sit around watching TV or playing video games. Plan activities that the family can do together, such as walking, biking, or swimming. Instead of settling on the couch after dinner, for instance, encourage your family to take a walk together. Also look for ways to be more active throughout the day -- by walking instead of driving, for instance, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Be an active role model. If your kids see you having fun being active, chances are they'll do the same. But don't push your kids too hard. Overweight children may be embarrassed about participating in certain activities. Be sensitive to your child's feelings and suggest activities that are comfortable for him. If your children are assigned chores, choose jobs that require physical activity. Gently encourage your overweight child to participate in clubs or sports that involve activity.
Should I put my child on a restrictive diet?
Absolutely not. Restricting how much food your child eats could be harmful to his health and interfere with his growth and development. However, you should stress moderation. The only exception is a special diet for medical reasons such as diabetes, which your child's doctor should closely supervise. Instead of saying no to fatty or sugary foods your child loves, encourage him to eat smaller portions less often. Steer him toward more healthful food choices -- fruits and vegetables, for instance, and low-fat foods.
What's the best diet for maintaining healthy weight?
When planning meals for your family, a good place to start is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which was developed by some of the nation's leading nutritionists. The guidelines emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products. They include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs and nuts. The USDA has also developed an interactive website to help you design your own meals based on the guidelines. Visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers/index.html to see how much of each food your child needs.
In addition, a few basic tips will help your child maintain a healthy weight:
- Cut down on the amount of saturated fat your family consumes. Gram for gram, fat contains twice as many calories as carbohydrates like bread or vegetables. ("Good fats," from polyunsaturated sources like fish, nuts, and vegetable oils, are good for your child, though.) Simple ways to cut back on fat include choosing low-fat or nonfat dairy products, serving poultry without skin, and choosing low-fat breads and cereals. (It's important to remember, however, that fat should not be restricted in the diets of children younger than 1, and that 1-year-olds should get 30 to 40 percent of their calories from fat.)
- Keep plenty of nutritious, low-fat foods in the house. Place a bowl of fruit out on the counter where kids can grab a piece. Provide alternatives to potato chips by keeping nuts, carrot sticks, or pretzels handy. Rather than harping on what your kids shouldn't eat, offer them plenty of good choices.
- Eat meals together as a family. By making meal times pleasant opportunities for conversation and sharing, you inspire your children to enjoy their food instead of gulping it down. Also encourage your children to eat slowly. That will enable them to recognize when they're satisfied and not overeat. Discourage children from eating in front of the TV or computer.
- Plan snacks for the kids, and make them as nutritious and low-fat as possible. Pack a small box of raisins or sunflower seeds instead of cookies in your child's lunch box, for example.
- Encourage your children to take part in shopping and cooking. That way you can teach them about nutrition. Children are more willing to try foods they help prepare.
- Don't expect your child to modify his exercise or eating habits simply because you keep reminding him that they're the reason he's overweight. Nagging or belittling him won't help and will probably make him resentful or even rebellious. Even highly motivated children won't be able to change their behavior just because they know it would be good for them. Providing the right foods, setting good examples, and praising him for choosing healthful foods and activities are measures that are much more likely to help.
- Finally, be patient. Overweight children who lose weight gradually rather than quickly are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. The most important goal is to instill healthy activity and eating habits in your children -- habits that will serve them well their entire lives.
American Medical Association, Special Nutritional Concerns: Children Age 6 to 12, Overweight Children
American Heart Association. Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Dietary-Recommendations-for-Healthy-Children_UCM_303886_Article.jsp
American Academy of Pediatrics. Dietary Recommendation for Children and Adolescents. http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;117/2/544