Helping Your Child Manage a Weight Problem

Child's hand reaching for a cupcake
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There can be a lot of worries that go along with having kids, something you learn quickly once they become more active and start exploring the world on their own two feet. While you may be concerned that boundless activity could potentially put your child in harm's way, regular exercise is one of the best things your child can do for their health, especially in light of the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity.

The statistical trends are concerning. The Centers for Disease Control found the following:

  • Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and it has quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
  • Obesity in children between ages 6 to 11 has gone from 7% to 18% since 1980.
  • In 2012, more than one-third of children and teens were overweight or obese.

So how do you know if you should be concerned about your own child? According to the CDC, overweight is defined as having a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex. Obesity is defined as having a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex.

Health Problems Associated With Obesity

These numbers may sound scary, but there are many things you can do if you have a child who is overweight or affected by obesity. First, it is helpful to begin educating yourself on the risks that come with obesity.

Some of those dangers of childhood obesity include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure
  • Trouble with bones and joints
  • Sleep disorders

Mental health issues can be especially difficult for children, who may be more likely to face bullying at school because of their weight.

Causes

Understanding some of the causes of childhood obesity can help you make better decisions for you and your family's health. Even if your child is not currently dealing with obesity, it doesn't hurt to be proactive and promote healthy behaviors that can last a lifetime.

While obesity is complex and there is more than one cause, some contributing issues are more amenable to lifestyle changes. Most of this list will probably not surprise you:

  • Genetics: Children of parents with obesity have a greater risk of developing the condition.
  • Diet: Many people have difficulty finding time to consistently make home-cooked meals, or have insufficient access to fresh and affordable produce. We're eating more fast food and foods that are high in calories and offer comparatively little nutrition, but may be cheaper options. Another major factor is that many kids are drinking extra calories that come from sodas and other sugary drinks.
  • Physical Inactivity: The CDC cites physical inactivity one potential cause of childhood obesity. Between television, video games, computers, and smartphones, screens have come to dominate modern life in the United States. Generally, time spent in front of a screen is time not spent outside running, jumping, sweating, and staying active.
  • Environment: The current environment is often not doing our children any favors in terms of promoting a healthy lifestyle. PE class is not enough activity on its own. Additionally, kids are inundated with advertisements for soda, candy, and other sugary foods that can lead to weight gain.

The good news is that most of the causes of obesity (barring changing your child's DNA) can be changed. If your child is overweight or on the road to obesity, there are many things you can do to help them lose weight now and develop healthy habits they can carry through to adulthood.

What Experts Say:

Although childhood obesity is a complex health issue, and today’s environment plays a major role in what shapes our children, there are things that we can do to help. It is never too early to start making positive health behaviors as part of a child’s routine. 

Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

How to Help Your Child Maintain a Healthy Weight

Changing your child's eating and exercise habits means changing your own as well. After all, you're in charge of what your child eats at home and how much exercise they get outside of school. Plus, you are their role model! If you exercise and eat nutritious foods, your child will see that and follow suit.

Your first order of business is finding out if your child is overweight or affected by obesity. Your doctor should be the one to make this diagnosis, so make an appointment to have your child checked out by a professional. One well-known method of testing for obesity is to determine someone's body mass index, which is simply a measure based on height and weight.

Most experts agree that helping your child lose weight is a family affair. Everyone should be involved in planning meals, buying food and coming up with ways to be active together. Some tips offered by the NIH include:

  • Don't keep junk food in the house. If it's not there, they can't eat it and neither can you.
  • Make water the drink of choice. Get rid of sodas and other sugary drinks.
  • Plan healthy meals and eat together as a family.
  • If you do eat fast food, educate yourself about the healthy choices available. Many restaurants have nutritional information available on their websites or in the restaurant.
  • Don't worry if your child won't eat healthy foods at first. It takes time to change how we eat, so be patient and keep trying.
  • Don't use food as a reward for good behavior.
  • Once you provide your children healthy foods, leave it up to them to decide how much they'll eat. Don't control the amount of food your child eats.

When it comes to exercise, what you do depends on your child's age. Young children don't need to be set up with a perfectly structured routine. The name of the game is FUN. Go to the park or the zoo, walk the dog, play ball in the backyard. Make it a habit of taking a walk before dinner or another activity that doesn't involve sitting around watching TV. Find out about any sports your child is interested in and encourage him/her to participate.

You should also talk to your doctor about what you can do about your child's health as well as educate yourself about healthy eating and exercise. Use available resources. Your community may have parks, trails, wildlife areas, playgrounds, pools and more that can offer fun ways to stay active with your kids.

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Article Sources
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  1. Defining Childhood Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated  July 3, 2018

  2. Grube M, Bergmann S, Keitel A, et al. Obese parents--obese children? Psychological-psychiatric risk factors of parental behavior and experience for the development of obesity in children aged 0-3: study protocolBMC Public Health. 2013;13:1193. Published 2013 Dec 17. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-1193

  3. Wang et al. Increasing Caloric Contribution From Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and 100% Fruit Juices Among US Children and Adolescents, 1988-2004. Pediatrics. 2008 Jun;121(6):e1604-14). doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2834