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Improving Your Child's Eating Habits

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It is a sad fact that weight problems and even morbid obesity among children are dramatically on the rise, not just in America but throughout the world. Many youngsters are overfed and at the same time they are undernourished. Excessive weight gain early in life can potentially lead to other serious health concerns, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and even cancer. If your child is facing any of these issues, you must take action at once.

What should you do when your child has unhealthy eating habits?

Many parents take comfort in the thought that their kids will eventually outgrow a little extra baby fat, and sometimes that may be the case. However, if a child becomes overweight from excessive consumption of unhealthy foods, drinks and sweets, the weight problems will not disappear with the next growth spurt.

Give your child a healthy start in life.
Teaching healthy eating habits to your children early on is one of the most important investment you can make in their lives. Many habits and preferences develop during early childhood and often continue for a lifetime. You cannot expect kids to distinguish healthy from unhealthy lifestyle choices themselves. They follow the example set by adults and older siblings. For parents, this is a short window of opportunity to get it right. When kids reach their teenage years, the chances for parental influence and guidance diminish quickly. So, if you observe your child exhibiting unhealthy behavior, you must try to stop the trend while you still can.

Set the stage for a healthy lifestyle at home.
Healthy living starts in the home. Parents are supposed to lay down the rules for meals and snacking. They supposedly determine what kind of food their kids can find in the fridge or the pantry. They are in charge of scheduling and facilitating time for exercise and physical activities. In a word, parents are foremost and ultimately responsible for their kids' health and well-being.

At least while they are young, children will follow the standards set for them. Of course, you can't expect to maintain control over their environment forever. Once they go off to school and spend more time outside the home, they are exposed to the same onslaught of temptations as the rest of us. Cafeterias, vending machines, coffee shops and fast food places can quickly sabotage all the good efforts you made on their behalf. But don't give up and don't underestimate the lasting effects you can have on young minds, even if it doesn't show right away. Most importantly, be a good role model. In other words, live yourself by the rules you set for your kids.

Deal with your child's weight problems in open and honest ways.
It can be difficult for parents of an overweight child to talk about weight problems. They may find the subject embarrassing or don't want to hurt their child's feelings. Shying away from addressing these issues, however, is never helpful -- least of all for the child.

There can be many reasons for weight problems to occur at an early age. A number of factors, like a sedentary lifestyle, easy access to food at home and frequent visits at restaurants and fast food places can all contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Family history, genetics and heredity may also play a role and need to be taken into consideration.

Sometimes, parents tend to overreach in response to their child's weight issues. Most weight loss programs are designed for adults and are not well suited for children and their nutritional needs for growth and development. Weight loss through fasting and calorie restriction is especially not recommended for youngsters.

However, portion sizes must be monitored, even for growing kids. For some parents it may be hard to say "no" when children ask for second helpings or extra treats and snacks. Keep in mind that you are not doing them any favors by not setting some necessary boundaries.

For a diet regimen designed for children, I advocate nutritional quality over calorie restriction. Balanced meal plans with emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables should be at the center of any weight management program, and particularly for children. Don't get discouraged if you encounter initial resistance. Most kids have neither "natural" preferences nor distastes and can love healthy foods as much as they love junk food or candy. When you introduce dietary changes, be patient but also be persistent.

Don't blame your child, change the environment
Never make a child feel guilty when you talk about weight. This is a delicate subject matter that needs to be approached with care. Instead of dispensing blame, consider ways to build a health-promoting and supportive environment where your child can gradually become comfortable with the changes you're trying to make. As I emphasized earlier, your own behavior as parents and the standards you set for your entire family play a crucial role in your child's chances for success.

It is never too late to keep trying
Don't count on quick results. Like many adults, children with weight problems often face long struggles that can last for a lifetime. Don't set the mark too high or try to achieve impossible goals. Work towards gradual but lasting improvements. Failure and relapses are almost inevitable, but you don't give up trying.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, R.D.