If you are concerned about your child's weight or other health issues related to your child's eating habits, your first step should be to consult with a pediatrician or a clinical dietitian. Many factors, including age, height, body frame, activity level, growth spurts and normal weight gain shortly before and during puberty need to be taken into account to determine whether your child's weight needs attention.
There is always more than one course of action that can be taken. Many commercial diets and weight loss programs are not suited for children. Most of these regimens focus on rapid weight loss through calorie and fat restriction, but they don't teach the value of sound nutrition and other beneficial lifestyle changes. In fact, restrictive diets may lead some children to become "deceptive" eaters by making them feel guilty about eating. Your best intentions may backfire. Some children who feel pressured to curb their appetite may eat in secret and turn to binge eating when they are unsupervised.
Unless children are seriously overweight, it may be best to allow them to "grow" into their extra weight. In other words, it can suffice to let them stay within a certain weight range until their next growth spurt takes place. In many cases, bad eating habits can be corrected with age-appropriate counseling and education.
Regular physical exercise should be encouraged at all stages of a child's upbringing, but especially when weight problems become an issue. Weight loss through exercise is the most natural and healthiest way to reach a healthy body weight. You should, however, consult with a pediatrician before your child engages in a more rigorous exercise regimen for weight loss purposes.
Finding the right strategy for lasting weight management is critical. Involving the whole family in making healthy food and lifestyle choices, instead of singling out the overweight child, can greatly increase the likelihood of success. Avoid blame or teasing. It's never helpful to make an overweight child feel uncomfortable or even ashamed by commenting on his or her condition. Most children who struggle with weight problems are keenly aware of their situation and need no reminders -- neither well-intended nor mean-spirited ones.
Healthy eating should be a pleasurable experience, especially for kids. If they feel deprived, they will not enjoy their food, no matter how beneficial it may be to their health. Variety makes meals interesting and helps ensure a balanced diet. There are hardly any "forbidden foods," however, moderation in serving sizes is key.
The benefits of healthy eating are indispensable, especially at a young age. Make this a central mission in the upbringing of your children. Don't assume kids learn anything about nutrition on their own. It is up to parents to take the initiative and teach them. Understand that this is an ongoing effort that requires lots of patience and persistence.
Spend some quality time around food. Organize family outings to your local farmers market or visit a working farm that welcome visitors. Encourage your kids to lend a helping hand in the kitchen and allow them to explore and experiment with cooking techniques.
Show your children that food is to be valued and appreciated and have them sit down for family dinners instead of letting them munch mindlessly in front of the TV or the computer. If you are too busy or too tired to cook full meal, think of possible alternatives. It doesn't take more time to pick up fresh ingredients from a salad bar than to order a pizza or wait in line at a burger joint. It's more a question of your priorities -- and your kids will pick up on that, too.
Follow Timi Gustafson, R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD