“He really doesn’t eat that much — he just eats the wrong things,” Jane anxiously assured me during a nutrition counseling session with her overweight 8-year-old.
I felt for both of them. Treating obesity is a tricky business, particularly when the patient is a child. But, there are some strategies you can use to help manage your child’s weight and establish more healthful eating patterns.
Aim for Weight Maintenance.
Children need calories, nutrients, and healthy fats for proper growth and development. That means the goal with overweight children is not weight loss, but maintaining their current weight while they grow taller. Putting children on a restrictive diet may result in short-term weight loss, but can set them up for serious eating disorders in the future.
Be a Good Role Model.
Your kids are watching you even if they seem to be paying no attention. If your eating habits are less than perfect, now would be a good time to make some changes. Sit down with your family for meals, start conversations at the dinner table to make meals more about family and less about food, and find games, sports, or nature walks the family can enjoy together to get everyone moving.
Plan Meals in Advance.
Busy days — are there any other kind? — can end with putting whatever is quick and handy on the dinner table without worrying too much about nutrition. But, eating healthfully requires planning a weekly menu and shopping from a list. Sticking to a shopping list has an added bonus: if you don’t bring home impulse purchases of less-than-healthful foods, then you and your family can’t eat them later.
Portion Control and Moderation are Key.
No foods should be completely off limits to your child, but even the most nutritious foods can cause weight gain if eaten to excess. The same thing goes for drinking caloric beverages excessively. For example, drinking a lot of fruit juice — even 100% fruit juice — can really pack on the pounds. The best go-to drink for your child is water, though you may want to add a tiny bit of fruit juice to make the flavor more interesting. Another good beverage choice for kids is a caffeine-free drink that’s been sweetened with a low/no calorie sweetener, like Splenda. For more about appropriate portion sizes and what it means to eat a moderate diet, please click here.
Understand that genes do play a part in how much a person weighs. Some children will never be stick thin no matter how hard they try. The good news is that being underweight isn’t the goal — you want to aim for a moderate, balanced, nutritious diet combined with lots of exercise.
A final note. It’s always a good idea to have your child checked out by a healthcare professional to make sure there are no underlying medical issues that are interfering with maintaining an appropriate weight.
Ellen Stokes, MS, RD, LD is an award-winning video producer, director, and writer in addition to being a registered dietitian. Ellen writes and creates videos about nutrition education, food safety, menu planning, grocery shopping, and healthful cooking on a budget. Ellen has worked with organizations and companies including WebMD, the Partnership for Food Safety Education, and the University of Georgia Food Science Department. Ellen formerly worked for CNN as a writer and producer and teaches food safety and nutrition for Georgia State University. Check her out on Twitter @EllenS_RD.