THE BLOG

How Parents Can Help Their Kids Overcome Obesity

09/16/2011 04:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011
  • Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. Pediatrician, Child Obesity Specialist, and Author, Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right!

The U.S. National Library of Medicine estimates that at least one out of five children in the U.S. is overweight. There are several reasons why parents need be concerned over an overweight or obese child. Obese children and adolescents have shown an alarming increase in the incidence of Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes. Many obese children have high cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which are risk factors for heart disease. One of the most severe problems for obese children is sleep apnea (interrupted breathing while sleeping). In some cases this can lead to problems with learning and memory. In addition, obese children have a high incidence of orthopedic problems, liver disease and asthma.

How to determine if your child is overweight or obese:

A doctor is the best person to determine whether your child has a weight problem. Doctors will measure your child's weight, height, age and growth patterns to determine if his or her weight is within a healthy range. Based on your child's height and weight, they will calculate a body mass index (BMI). If your child's BMI is greater than 95 percent of children their age and gender, they are considered to be overweight.

Why Children Become Overweight

Genetic factors: Children become overweight for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns or a combination of these factors. In rare cases, a medical problem, such as an endocrine disorder, may cause a child to become overweight. A careful physical exam and some blood tests will determine if your child is overweight due to this type of problem.

Children whose parents or brothers or sisters are overweight may be at an increased risk of becoming overweight themselves. However, not all children with a family history of obesity will be overweight. Genetic factors play a role in increasing the likelihood that a child will be overweight, but shared family behaviors such as eating and activity habits also greatly influence body weight.

Lifestyle: A child's total diet and his or her activity level both play an important role in determining a child's weight. The average American child spends approximately 24 hours each week watching television -- time that could be spent in some sort of physical activity.

What Parents Can Do to Help

Be supportive: Overweight children need support, acceptance and encouragement from their parents. Children's feelings about themselves often are based on their parents' feelings about them. It is also important to talk to your children about weight, allowing them to share their concerns with you.

Don't use food as a punishment or reward: Withholding food as a punishment may lead children to worry that they will not get enough food which may result in overeating. When foods, such as sweets, are used as a reward, children may assume that these foods are better or more valuable than other foods. For example, telling children that they will get dessert if they eat all of their vegetables sends the wrong message about vegetables.

Set a good example: Children are good learners and they learn best by example. Set a good example for your kids by eating a variety of foods and being physically active. Involve children in food shopping and preparing. Children may be more willing to eat or try foods that they help prepare.

Teach healthy habits: Teaching healthy eating practices early will help children approach eating with the right attitude: Food should be enjoyed and is necessary for growth, development and essential energy. Guide their choices rather than dictating foods. This will help your children learn how to make healthy food choices. Encourage your child to eat slowly. A child can detect hunger and fullness better when eating slowly.

Cut down on some fats: Reducing fat is a good way to cut calories without depriving your child of nutrients. Simple ways to cut the fat in your family's diet include eating low-fat or non-fat dairy products, poultry without skin and lean meats, and low-fat or fat-free breads and cereals. However, make sure not to cut out healthy sources of fat such as walnuts, almonds and avocado.

Healthy snacking: You should make snacks as nutritious as possible, without depriving your child of occasional chips or cookies, especially at parties or other social events. Healthy snacks include: applesauce, carrot sticks with hummus, peanut butter on apples, yogurt, dried fruit, fruit juice popsicles, low fat cheese etc.

Increase your physical activity: Regular physical activity, combined with healthy eating habits, is the most efficient and healthful way to control your weight. Some simple ways to increase your family's physical activity include the following: Plan family activities like walking, dancing, biking or swimming.

For example, schedule a walk with your family after dinner instead of watching TV or playing video games. Overweight children may feel uncomfortable about participating in certain activities so it is important to help your child find physical activities that they enjoy and that aren't embarrassing or too difficult.

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