Planning Meals, Snacks, & Exercise When Your Child is Overweight

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It’s well-documented that obesity can cause serious and chronic medical conditions. With childhood obesity rates increasing globally, parents have started asking what steps they can take to instill healthy habits into their kids, and to help an overweight or obese child grow into a healthy weight.

Though it’s easy to blame fast food as the primary culprit in our nation’s obesity epidemic, burgers and fries may not be the only thing causing kids to be overweight. It’s important to understand what the main factors are in your child’s lifestyle that are affecting his or her weight, and commit to taking steps as a family to correct them.

How Can I Tell Whether My Child Is Overweight?

Both the WHO (World Health Organization) and CDC (Centers for Disease Control) have developed growth charts that physicians in the US use when assessing a child’s weight.  However, the easiest way for a parent to check whether their child is overweight at home is by using an online BMI calculator.  This tool from the CDC is easy to use.

If your child is overweight, start by talking to your pediatrician.  Children shouldn’t be placed on a calorie-restricted diet plan, and especially not on a fad diet (like Atkins or the SlimFast diet).  Instead, kids should be encouraged to eat healthy meals, get lots of exercise, and cut out unhealthy junk foods.

Change #1: Be a Positive Role Model.

Your children pick up a huge number of habits from you, so be their healthy role model. If your children watch you eat high-sugar snacks while foregoing fruit and vegetables, they’re considerably more likely to mimic that behavior.

Eat healthy in front of your son or daughter, and try trading in a few nights per week on the couch for an evening walk as a family. Involving the whole family in this healthier lifestyle prevents your child from feeling singled out or embarrassed, which could cause them to resent you and push back at your efforts.

Change #2: Make Better Food Choices Together.

Many busy families find it hard to eat healthy, but some simple changes can have big results.  We encourage the following habits for the families of our young patients:

  • Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain products.
  • Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils, and beans for protein.
  • Juices are usually very high in sugar.  Encourage low-fat milk or just plain water.
  • Serve reasonably-sized portions, and eat one portion per meal. If your family has a tendency to take unnecessary second or third helpings, try leaving pans of food out of reach of the table.  This will help prevent everyone from mindlessly grabbing another portion.
  • Limit consumption of sugar-containing foods, as well as saturated fats (like butter and chocolate).
  • Don’t use food as a prize for good work or good grades. Food shouldn’t be a reward.
  • Replace junk food with healthy alternatives.  Get creative and look for ways to make your family’s favorite foods healthier (such as swapping out sour cream for plain yogurt, or serving leaner cuts of beef).

Change #4: Encourage Exercise.

Moderate-intensity exercise a few times per week is a great way to keep your kids healthy. Encourage your child to join an after-school sport, or just to get out and play with his or her friends.  If your child isn’t interested in team sports, get creative: rollerblading, walking, or video games like Wii fit, Pokemon Go, or Dance Dance Revolution are fun ways to “trick” kids into exercise.

Kids love toys and technology.  If a wearable fitness tracking device is in your budget (such as a FitBit), that’s another way to keep them invested in exercise.  Wearables will be much more appreciated by a child who’s interested in getting healthier, and needs some motivation to stay on-track.

Childhood obesity can lead to a number of health-related consequences, but there are plenty of things you can do as a parent to fight unhealthy habits.  Always keep in mind that small daily changes are what make up the recipe for a healthy body.