Parenting an overweight child
- 4 Minutes Read
Dealing with an overweight child can be a tricky business for parents. Should you monitor weight or calories or put your child on a strict diet? Some tips to help make the process easier and more successful.
I wasn't sure what to make of this: I saw an obese boy about 11 years old, wearing a T-shirt that said in big letters "Insert Candy Here", with an arrow point up at his mouth. Sadly someone was not taking his situation seriously.
The childhood obesity epidemic is serious. It can seem like an abstract concept, a lot of statistics and anxiety on the part of health experts. When it hits close to home, it's not abstract at all. It's your child. What do you do? Well for one thing, don't buy that T-shirt. The causes of this epidemic, and your child's problem, are many. An article in the journal Family Relations: sums it up nicely: the family system is the main driver of obesity. Parenting styles and feeding practices contribute, as does our sedentary lifestyle. Genes may play some role, but don't blame them entirely. And there are certainly other unrecognized issues at work.
It's popular to blame certain foods, and you might conclude that sugar is the culprit based on the results of one new study. Toddlers from low-income families were fed lunch and then offered a tray with sweets like cookies, and salty snacks like chips. The kids were all allowed to eat as much of these extra foods as they wanted. Some kids went for the sweets; some preferred the salty snacks. Some kept right on eating, and got upset when the trays were taken away. The researchers noted this behavior.
A gradual increase in body fat by 33 months of age was linked to preference for the sugary foods, and to being more upset when the trays were taken away. The kids who preferred the salty snacks did not show that body fat increase. The researchers concluded that a tendency to eat well past hunger was a risk factor for kids.
This isn't too surprising. Too many calories + too little physical activity = accumulation of body fat. There's no way around that fact of human metabolism. But it's interesting that the behaviors that set someone up for obesity can be observed so early in life. Conclusion: while overeating sugary foods is certainly a bad idea, the overeating behavior itself is more concerning.
Whether it's strictly controlling access to sweets or access to unlimited food, parents need to seize control of the situation that's contributing to their child's weight. No one else is going to solve the problem for you. It's nice if the school schedules more recess or removes soft drinks from vending machines or bans cupcakes at birthday parties. It's nice that TV ads encourage kids to play for 60 minutes. It's nice that food companies are busy cutting calories from all manner of food products. It's nice that fast food kids' meals have apple slices. But those pieces of the puzzle won't help unless you have a strategy to be involved and stay involved with the process. The good news is that if you can stick to a reasonable plan, you'll end up creating a New Normal for your whole family, a normal that values health and well-being as part of family life.
Kids need calories for energy and growth, so they need proportionately more per pound of body weight than an adult. But they're smaller than adults, so their total intake may not seem that large. Baylor College of Medicine has a calculator to estimate needs, depending on your child's general activity level. This can give you a very general idea of your child's average daily needs. But actual daily intake may vary greatly from one week to another depending on activity and growth spurts.
Children are growing. Restricting calories the way you would for an adult on a weight loss diet is not a good idea. It sets the child up to feel deprived and stigmatized. Not to mention hungry and unhappy.
A better plan is to make sure your family's food choices are focused primarily on healthy options and that physical activity is an inherent part of daily life. The toddler study also suggests keeping sugary foods at a minimum, to avoid setting kids of up later problems.
Short answer: no. Don't make a young overweight child any more self-conscious about his or her body. Don't discuss the child's weight in front of the child or with siblings. And don't tolerate teasing from siblings, other family members or friends.
Here are some strategies I've advised clients, friends and family to use. You don't need to use all of them. Pick the 2-3 tips that will be easiest to implement right away. Start slowly. Expecting your family to accept a sudden and massive change in food choices, meal schedule and lifestyle isn't realistic for most people. Then make more changes as time goes on and your efforts pay off.
Children are growing, so rather than trying to encourage weight loss, facilitate healthy growth and weight stability. That means your child's weight would gradually shift to the normal range as he or she grows taller. This process isn't fast, but it's healthier than some quick weight loss scheme, which would be inappropriate for a child.
Dealing with an overweight or obese child can be a tricky business, part psychology, part food management, part lifestyle logistics. The best overall plan is to make this an opportunity for the whole family to be involved in healthier lifestyle choices.Weight Loss->Family & Friends