childhood obesity is epidemic in the United States. The Centers for Disease reports that the percentage of obese kids has tripled over the last thirty years and that one-third of American children and adolescents are obese or overweight. The risks of being overweight are well documented, but how to actually tackle the problem is far less clear to most families.It's no secret that
Writing for the April 2012 "Shape" issue of VOGUE, mom Dara-Lynn Weiss touches on many of the obstacles facing parents who try to help their kids achieve a healthy weight. When Weiss's daughter, Bea, was seven, her pediatrician diagnosed her as seriously overweight. With the help of a childhood-obesity specialist, Weiss put her on a diet. Other parents were shocked at the idea of restricting a child's eating and even her daughter's grand parents (who eventually came around) begged to give her larger servings of pasta and junk food. Weiss writes, "Everyone supports the mission but no one seems to approve of my methods." Not to mention her daughter, who balked and whined about taking her lunch to school and missing out on the processed treats that other children were allowed to eat.
Weiss recounts that as part of the process, she had address her own issues around food. She admits to having tried every kind of diet including raw food and juice fasting and once "begging a doctor friend to score me a prescription of fen-phen"-after it had been found to have serious side effects. She also acknowledges her approach to her child's nutrition before she went on a supervised eating plan had been haphazard and inconsistent.
After a year of struggle, her daughter did lose sixteen pounds and grew two inches, but Weiss writes, "For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet…Only time will tell if my early intervention saved her from a life of preoccupation with her weight, or drove her to it." Her story underscores just how complicated it can be for families of obese and overweight children. "Mom and dad need to be comfortable with their own body image to help kids instill good eating habits," Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Shine. She points out that "wellness doesn't happen in a vacuum" and emphasizes that living a healthy lifestyle is a family affair.
Melinda Johnson, RD, also of the Academy, recommends that families should focus more on getting healthy than on losing weight. "A seven year-old with extra weight is showing symptoms of an unhealthy diet," Johnson tells Shine. "There is a huge concern that when we focus too much on weight we might be encouraging disordered eating." Johnson warns that making derogatory comments about your kid's appearance or feeding them differently than their siblings can create additional problems.
What's a parent to do? Fortunately, according to Johnson, most overweight kids who start eating nutritious food and increase their activity level will grow naturally toward a normal weight for their genetics. Johnson and Jamieson-Petonic offer these tips for getting your family on track.
If you think your child is overweight or obese, it's important to enlist your pediatrician's support and guidance. A registered dietician can also help.
Don't expect your child to completely avoid junk food. "One piece of birthday cake never made anyone fat," says Johnson. Help children learn to make good choices about healthy food and having the occasional indulgence.
Feature nutritious food, such as a bowl of fruit or whole grain crackers and hummus, on the counter. Stow the junk food in cupboards.
Don't eat in front of the television. This can lead to the mindless consumption of empty calories.
Research shows that kids who eat meals with their parents tend to have healthier weights, higher self-esteem, and do better in school. It doesn't always have to be dinner-breakfast or lunch counts.
Eat the way you want your child to eat. Modeled behavior is a powerful tool. Emphasize low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, beans, lean meats, and whole grains.
Structure your meals. Grazing all day can pile on calories. Kids need to get in touch with their hunger cues and learn to eat when they are hungry, not just snack.
Cutting down on screen time helps children be more active. After a set amount of time, turn off electronics and ask kids to go and play.
Its great if kids enjoy sports but if they don't, try going for family walks or bike rides. You can also garden together, play at the park, or walk the dog. Activities should be enjoyable, not punishing.
Let kids help with shopping and cooking. They will be more likely to try new foods if they are involved in their preparation.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, eatright.org, has a wealth of information about healthy eating for families.
Also on Shine:Twenty Nifty, Nutritious Snacks for Kids