Everyone knows that excess weight in children has become increasingly common, and with the many demands of daily life many parents don’t know how to add the structure and consistency required for many weight-loss diets. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to help your child reach a healthy weight. It all starts at home, and everyone in the family gets to participate—and benefit.
Loving attention—better than food
Love them for who they are: Perhaps the most important thing parents can do for overweight children is to let them know that they are loveable just as they are. No one knows better than an overweight child the pain of being ridiculed or told that their weight makes them less deserving of love. Being shown unconditional love helps them love themselves.
Remember that health matters more than size: Newer studies have shown that it’s possible to be healthy, even if the scale reads “overweight.” Helping your child to adopt health-promoting habits like eating fewer refined foods and getting regular exercise can help improve his or her overall health, and weight loss (or prevention of further gain) will likely come as an added bonus.
Say no to food rewards: Try to never use food to reward or to comfort a child. The same goes for punishing: withholding food is never a “natural consequence.” Linking food deprivation with undesirable behaviors is confusing and misleading to children and can lead to unhealthy habits, such as eating in response to cues like loneliness, boredom, or sadness rather than hunger.
The “no diet” plan
Let them grow into their size: Pediatricians agree that children should not be placed on restrictive diets. Instead, moving the whole family towards better health through proper nutrition and exercise will better promote healthy weight in children, allowing them to “grow into” their current weight by gaining height but not fat.
Be prepared: Just like it’s not a good idea to shop when you’re hungry, it’s important to have your shelves stocked with healthy choices, like ready-to-eat cut up veggies, when hunger strikes.
TIP: If it’s easier, make it a family policy to only eat fruits and veggies in the hour or two before dinner.
Pack in the fruits and veggies: Instead of counting the number of servings of fruits and vegetables your child is eating every day, start making it a habit to include these foods at every meal and snack.
TIP: Smoothies are a great way to load up on fruits and vegetables. A green smoothie made with a big handful of fresh spinach leaves, a ripe pear, a frozen banana, and a cup of milk packs some serious nutrients and it tastes great, too. Give it a cute name, like Spring Green Fairy Smoothie or Green Dragon Potion. If your kids aren’t hip to green drinks, use frozen berries (raspberries and blueberries are a nice combo), a banana, a splash of pure maple syrup, plain yogurt, and some milk.
Make calories count: Processed foods only give your kids empty calories—ones that go a long way toward increasing weight, but have few health-promoting qualities. Help your kids learn that filling your belly isn’t the same as nourishing your body. When you’re putting together a meal or a snack for the family, try to make sure that at least 75% of the ingredients are from whole foods.
Eat more: fruits; vegetables; nuts and seeds; whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, oats, barley, and millet; legumes like beans and lentils; poultry; dairy products like milk, cheese, and low-sugar yogurt; eggs; fish; and tofu.
Eat less: white bread and other foods made from white flour like pretzels and crackers; soda and other sweetened beverages; juice; sweet treats like cookies, pastries, and fruit snacks; and fried foods like chips and French fries.
Don’t forget the protein: Growing children need plenty of protein for proper development. Plus, it helps support healthy weight and balance blood sugar levels, keeping their spirits high and giving them lasting energy.
TIP: Good protein picks include: eggs, poultry, beef, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, beans, lentils, and nut butters.
Buy only the foods that you want them to eat: If the junky foods don’t make it into the house, your kids will have a harder time eating them. They might still trade for something “better” at lunch time, but for the hours that they’re home, the bulk of their options will be healthy ones.
Take baby steps: Don’t expect to change your family’s way of eating all at once. Instead, swap out one or two unhealthy items from your grocery cart each week for a more wholesome food. The idea is to gradually move everyone toward a healthier eating pattern. When it happens over time, they’ll hardly notice.
Don’t be a nag: Do not require children to clean their plate; instead, ask them if they are satisfied so they learn to notice their bodies cues. Remember: there’s no need to feel full after every meal or snack. At the same time, don’t fall into the habit of letting children eat dessert or other snack foods if they’re “too full” to eat their fruits and veggies.
Get the whole family on board
Be the eater you want them to be: On the top of the list for promoting healthy eating in your children is to do it yourself. Nothing speaks louder than actions, and children are hyperaware of incongruities in the messages we send them.
Be active: Exercise can be fun way to get some quality time in, which children crave with their parents. They should get one hour of moderate physical activity every day. Get the whole family out on bikes in the warmer months, swim indoors during the winter, or enjoy a hike any time of year. Encourage active friendships: kids in the neighborhood who like to play tag, basketball—it doesn’t matter what
Eat together: Family meals are a wonderful opportunity to catch up on each other’s day. Studies have shown that younger kids whose families eat together are less likely to be overweight and will more often choose fruits and vegetables over fried food and soda. Teenage girls are less likely to develop eating disorders when they eat with the family.
Limit media: Children who spend more time in front of a screen tend to spend less time being active, and they’ll also eat more when simultaneously watching television, playing video games, or surfing the Internet. Make it a house rule to turn off all electronic media while eating.
Advocate for play time: Many schools are taking away much-needed recess time in order to make room for other subjects. It’s up to parents to speak up against this practice and help preserve this vital time on the playground.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her doctoral degree from Bastyr University, the nation’s premier academic institution for science-based natural medicine. She co-founded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, where she practiced whole family care with an emphasis on nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, detoxification, and food allergy identification and treatment. Her blog, Eat Happy, helps take the drama out of healthy eating with real food recipes and nutrition news that you can use. Dr. Beauchamp is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.