How to Help Your Overweight Child
Q. “My son is chubby. What can I do to help him lose weight..?
A. How to help an overfat child lose weight is a complex topic of debate among parents and pediatricians alike. We know that restricting a child’s food intake does not work. Rather, restricting food tends to result in sneak-eating, binge-eating, guilt, shame–the same stuff that adults encounter when they “blow their diets.” But this time, the parents become the food police—an undesirable family dynamic.
The following tips are based on information from books by family feeding expert Ellyn Satter: Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.
Food restrictions cause problems
Despite your best intentions to prevent creeping obesity, do not put your overfat child on a diet. Diets for children disrupt a child’s natural ability to eat when hungry and stop when content. Instead, the child overcompensates and doesn’t stop when he’s content (binges) or stuffs himself with “last chance eating.” You know, “Last chance to have birthday cake so I’d better eat a lot now because when I get home, I’m restricted to celery sticks and rice cakes.”
If you are a parent of a chubby child, note that children commonly grow out before they grow up. That is, they often gain body fat before starting a growth spurt. Instead of putting your daughter on a diet (which damages self-esteem and imprints the message she isn’t good enough the way she is), get her involved in sports and other activities. If your child expresses a desire to learn how to eat better, arrange for a consultation with a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric weight control. (Use the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ referral network at www.eatright.org.)
Is your child really overfat?
Often, the child’s weight problem is really the parent’s issue. You may want a “perfect child.” Talk to your pediatrician to determine if your child’s weight is indeed a health issue.
Be sure to love your overfat child from the inside out–and not judge her (or him) from the outside in. Just little comments (“That dress is pretty, honey, but it would look even better if you’d just lose a few pounds…..”) get interpreted as “I’m not good enough.” Self-esteem takes a nose-dive and contributes to anorexic thinking, such as “thinner is better.”
Weight management tips
So what can you do to help fat kids slim-down? Work together as a family to change your food and exercise habits. This could mean watching less TV, planning enjoyable family activities (unlike boot camp), and perhaps even creating a walking school bus with the neighborhood kids. As a family, you might want to sign up for a charitable walking or running event
Food-wise, provide your kids with wholesome, nourishing foods, as well as semi-regular “junk foods.” (Otherwise, they will go out and get them). Encourage them to eat breakfast. Plan structured meals and snacks; take dinnertime seriously. Your job is to determine the what, where and when of eating; the child’s job is to determine how much and whether to eat. (That is, don’t force them to finish their peas, nor stop them from having second helpings.) Trust them to eat when hungry, stop when content—and have plenty of energy to grow and enjoy an active lifestyle.
Sports dietitian Nancy Clark, MS, RD has a private practice in the Boston area, where she counsels both casual exercisers and competitive athletes (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook is available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.NutritionSportsExercise.com for online education.