Kids and Weight Control: The Role Of Parents
For parents of children with weight problems, it can be a confusing situation. Should you restrict their food or just leave well enough alone and hope they grow out of it? The key is to help your children adopt healthful habits that will stay with them through life.
A Growing Problem
Childhood weight problems often carry over into adulthood, and overweight adults are at greater risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Worse, conditions once associated only with adults, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a major risk factor for a stroke and heart attack), are now increasingly being found in some children and adolescents.
Several factors may be to blame. In rare cases, a medical problem may be the cause. If you suspect your child has a weight problem or is developing one, make an appointment with their pediatrician.
The most common factors in childhood obesity may include the following:
Lack of Exercise
Too much television, computer time, and video games can take away time from doing physical activity as well as proving more opportunities for snacking.
Consuming Too Many Calories
Today's time-pressed families are relying more and more on convenience foods and fast foods, many of which are high in calories, especially from carbohydrates. High fat intake from burgers, fries, and pizza plays a role, but many kids are also gulping down hundreds of calories a day in the form of sodas, sports drinks, and sweetened juice drinks.
Overly-large serving portions at both restaurants and at home have also likely played a role. Additionally, many schools may not provide healthy lunches.
Research has shown that children with overweight parents and/or siblings are more likely to be overweight themselves. While genes may play a role, it may also be that parents pass on unhealthful behaviors and habits to their children.
Dos and Don'ts for Parents
The best advice for parents is to help your kids eat healthfully, be active, and build self-esteem. The best way to do this is by being a good role model and following these dos and don'ts alongside your children:
- Be supportive —Kids need to know that you love and respect them unconditionally and that their weight does not define their self-worth. Kids who feel loved and confident are more likely to be able to make positive lifestyle changes and feel good about themselves while they are doing it.
- Don't be the "food police" —Watching over your kids like a hawk and creating a list of forbidden foods is likely to backfire. Kids whose diets are severely restricted will often resort to sneaking food and even bingeing in private.
- Teach your children about balanced nutrition —The whole family should have a basic understanding of what makes up a healthful diet. If you need help, ask your child's pediatrician for a referral to a registered dietitian.
- Involve the children in shopping, menu planning, and cooking —It is helpful for kids to be involved and feel like they have some control over their diet.
- Have several healthy snacks on hand —It is normal for kids to get hungry between meals. Healthful snacks will keep them going throughout the day. Kid-friendly choices include apple slices with peanut butter, yogurt with granola, dried fruit and nuts, and pre-cut vegetable sticks with low-fat dip.
- Don't use food as punishment or reward —Kids should understand that food is fuel for a healthy body, as well as a source of pleasure. Associating food with punishment or reward may distort children's views of the role of food in their lives.
- Have your kids eat their meals and snacks at the table —Kids (and adults) who eat while watching TV or doing other activities are more likely to overeat because they are not paying attention to how much they are eating.
- Encourage physical activity —This may be one of the most important things you can do for your kids. Regular exercise is vital to weight control, as well as to health. While team sports or community activity programs are great, it is also a good idea for parents to exercise with their kids and make it a family activity, such as walks after school or weekend hikes.
- Limit screen time —Set reasonable limits to how long your children can sit in front of the television, game system, or computer.
- Don't give your children any weight-loss remedies or medications —Many are not safe for children and could cause harmful side effects. Talk to their pediatrician before giving any weight-loss medication.
- Encourage your child to get plenty of sleep —Not getting enough sleep may increase your child's risk of obesity. Depending on your child's age, they may need 9-11 hours of sleep each night.
Healthful Habits for Life
The best advice for any family is to eat and enjoy healthful food together and to exercise together. Kids who learn healthful behaviors as part of a family lifestyle are much more likely to continue those healthful habits throughout their lives.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Dietitians of Canada
Be a healthy role model for children. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/sites/default/files/tentips/DGTipsheet12BeAHealthyRoleModel.pdf. Updated June 2011. Accessed March 23, 2016.
NHLBI integrated guidelines for pediatric cardiovascular risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 12, 2013. Accessed March 23, 2016.
Obesity in children and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 14, 2016. Accessed March 23, 2016.
Overweight and obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity. Updated June 19, 2015. Accessed March 23, 2016.
10/8/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Laurson KR, Eisenmann JC, Welk GJ, Wickel EE, Gentile Da, Walsh DA. Combined influence of physical activity and screen time recommendations on childhood overweight. J Pediatr. 2008;153(2):209-214.
6/25/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Anderson SE, Whitaker RC. Household routines and obesity in US preschool-aged children. Pediatrics. 2010;125(3):420-428.
Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 3/23/2016