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What You Shouldn't Do if You Think Your Child Is Too Heavy

Commonly-used weight loss methods for kids are likely to fail.

If you think your child is getting too heavy, you’re not alone. The number of overweight kids has tripled since the 1960s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 14.4 million kids (19.3 percent) age 2 to 19 were obese. The numbers are worse for minority children and adolescents: The prevalence was 25.6 percent for Hispanic and 24.2 percent for African-American children.

How do you know if your child is too heavy?

Although there are good data for large groups of kids, identifying obesity in any child isn’t straightforward. Children don’t all develop at the same pace so it’s hard to know if your child’s weight gain is a result of a growth spurt or if it represents something more worrying. Although it’s far from perfect, the CDC has a BMI (Body Mass Index) percentile for age calculator. It will tell you how your child’s BMI compares with other children of the same age.

What not to do

If you determine that your child is overweight or obese, what should you do? The one thing not to do is to put him or her on a diet. There’s ample evidence that childhood dieting is counterproductive, often resulting in shame and a poor self-concept. I’ve worked with hundreds of adolescents and adults with eating disorders. Most reported unsuccessful dieting starting in childhood.

Another tried-and-failed approach is to forbid specific foods. Your announcement that macaroni and cheese, ice cream, or chips are bad and must be avoided will likely backfire: It will only increase the attractiveness of a hard-to-come-by food. You’ll just be drawing battle lines for predictable conflicts that will guarantee strife leaving both you and your child unhappy.

“But I don’t want my child to have an eating disorder or suffer the health risks and stigma that come with obesity. What should I do?”

How you can help

Rather than diets, you can focus on healthy eating and model it yourself. Let your child see that you enjoy eating fruits and vegetables – in fact, you and your child can try to grow some. Even window pots (or potting soil in paper cups) with carrot seedlings or other veggies with their quickly emerging sprouts will keep kids interested. If you live near a “pick your own” orchard, plan an outing with your child — and encourage her to invite a friend — for choosing cherries or strawberries.

If your child still won’t eat the vegetables, don’t get frustrated. Often it will take 10 or more prompts before a child will try a new food. Start with the newest, smallest veggies like sweet snap peas or baby carrots rather than vegetables like broccoli or asparagus which have a stronger taste.

And who told you not to play with your food? Have fun with colorful produce. Smaller children can cook veggies and decorate the serving plate with veggies, berries, herbs, and if they’re available, edible flowers. Then make sure that you eat your share and compliment your young sous chef.

Copyright Edward Abramson, PhD
Source: Copyright Edward Abramson, PhD

What about junk food? Forbidding any food, no matter how fattening, can create conflict and distress for kids of any age. For example, if your son is in middle school and friends stop for a Slurpee, what should he do? If he doesn’t have one and his friends ask why he would be embarrassed having to explain that his parents forbid it. Even if he understands that the “empty calories” are unhealthy, it’s likely that he would relent and have the Slurpee. And then he’d probably feel guilty and perhaps lie to you about it. So instead of forbidding foods, you can explain how some foods can taste good in your mouth but add calories without providing any nutrition. Assure him or her that, while it’s not something to have routinely, it can be enjoyed as an occasional treat.

It’s helpful to remember that, if your child is still growing, he or she doesn’t need to actively lose weight. Most likely your child can slim down if they maintain their current weight and continue to grow.

More from Edward Abramson Ph.D.
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