It’s a staggering figure: More than 9 million children and teens between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight, according to the American Heart Association. A 2004 study found that nearly 19 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were overweight. However, Dr. Michelle Heng, a pediatrician at Group Health in Redmond, says there is a little good news: Though these numbers have been steadily increasing since the early 1990s, they are now starting to come back down.
If you have an overweight child, local doctors suggest giving some of these ideas a try:
- Provide a glowing example. If you’re eating pop and cookies, your child won’t understand why they can’t have the same. “Kids, especially the youngest ones, mimic and imitate what their parents are doing,” says Michele Schaper, M.S., R.D., C.D., a wellness dietician for MultiCare in Tacoma. “If parents adopt a healthy lifestyle, then kids will buy into it, too.” Children look for structure and will follow your lead.
- Choose healthy and delicious foods. The key to serving the most nutritious foods is to have them readily available in your home. Stock the refrigerator with a variety of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, and the pantry with whole grains. Schaper suggests involving your child in shopping, meal planning and cooking; they’ll be more likely to eat healthy meals if they’ve had a hand in preparing them. “Kids love planning and having a themed dinner night once a week,” Schaper says.
- Practice the 80/20 rule. Eating only healthy foods 100 percent of the time just doesn’t work. At some point, your child will have a pizza party at school, go to a birthday bash or be offered junk food when you’re not around. Meal plans that are too restrictive usually backfire, so help your child plan for the 20 percent “fun food” eating times. Talk to him about practicing moderation and portion control during those times.
- Limit dining out. Now that fast-food restaurants throughout Seattle and King County must post the number of calories and grams of saturated fat in all of their offerings, it will be obvious why fast food is not a good choice. Schaper also warns you to stay away from “supersizing” anything. Even in traditional restaurants, the portions are inflated. For example, the recommended serving size for pasta is one-half cup; restaurants generally serve 2 cups or more per entrée, which is at least four servings!
- Adopt good eating habits. Schaper recommends eating meals and snacks at the dinner table as a family. Discourage snacking or eating in front of the TV. “Encourage your child to eat when he is hungry and let him decide when he is full,” says Schaper. “Don’t use food as a reward or to comfort your child.” Schaper says that using dessert as a reward for finishing a meal teaches your child to value sweets more than other foods, so if you plan to have dessert (and keep that to a minimum), make it part of the meal and let your child choose what he will eat first.
- Involve the whole family in healthier eating. Singling out the overweight child can lead to them feeling lonely and negative about themselves. The whole family, including children with normal weights, can benefit from eating healthier and getting more exercise.
- Encourage physical activity. Heng suggests doing activities as a family, such as family walks or bike rides, or playing baseball or basketball. Make it a fun adventure, and let kids plan weekend activities for the whole family. “Limit tube time [TV, computer, video games] to no more than two hours per day — which is probably still too much!” says Heng.
- Ask for help. “If you’re having trouble getting your child on board to eating healthier and engaging in exercise, don’t hesitate to seek professional help,” says Schaper. “As parents, we know that, despite our best efforts, kids are more likely to follow recommendations and listen to information that comes from someone else.”
Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma who frequently writes on health and parenting topics.
To find a qualified dietician in your area, visit www.eatright.org, click on “Find a Nutrition Professional,” then click on “Consumer” and enter your ZIP code.
ADA Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids: How Your Child Can Eat Smart from 5–12 by Jodie Shield, M.Ed., R.D., and Mary Catherine Mullen, M.S., R.D.
If Your Child Is Overweight: A Guide for Parents by Susan M. Kosharek, M.S., R.D.
Food Fights by Laura A. Jana, M.D., F.A.A.P., and Jennifer Shu, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Dr. Susan’s Kids-Only Weight Loss Guide: The Parent’s Action Plan for Success by Susan S. Bartell