Helping Kids Lose Weight, Dignity Intact

Featured Article, Food and Nutrition, Growth and Development, Health and Safety
Boy measures weight on floor scales

Weight loss resolutions are popular with adults at the start of every new year. But losing weight or setting your sites on a healthy BMI isn’t just for adults. The United States is on the verge of a childhood obesity epidemic, and the facts are downright frightening: In 2010, more than a third of adolescents and children in the country were obese or overweight, and the trend continues upward.

Overweight and obese children who resolve to lose weight—or whose parents have identified the need for them to lose weight—may benefit from making weight loss a family affair. So how can a parent help their child achieve their weight loss goals and lead a healthier life? Rule #1? Tread lightly.

A recent study published in Pediatrics found that obese children were at increased risk of developing eating disorders as adolescents. “That is often because parents are frequently misguided in their efforts to help children lose weight, and the results can be damaging,” says Alexis Conason, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in overeating disorders and a researcher at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital.

“It is not uncommon for weight loss efforts in childhood to trigger eating disorders later in life, which is something I see all the time in my practice,” adds Conason. “I think that a focus on health rather than weight loss is key to helping children develop healthy eating and lifestyle behaviors without triggering disordered eating.”

There are many strategies for the whole family to make healthy non-weight-based changes without singling out one child or damaging a child’s self-esteem suffer.

One such strategy is to keep your cool. “Parents shouldn’t try to scare kids into shedding the pounds or bribe them,” says Kathy Brown, a personal trainer from North Canton, Ohio, and co-creator of Sitacise fitness program. “Instead, reassure them that their weight loss journey is something the family will share. And you’ll be their partner, right there with them to help and show them how to shed these pounds.

And keep the lines of communication open.

“Talk to your child and explain that carrying extra weight isn’t about how you look, it’s a matter of health. And that being overweight can lead to illnesses,” says Brown.

Whether you employ the help of a trainer, your child’s pediatrician or a nutritionist, or devise a weight management plan yourself, Brown says let your child know he is in great hands and, as a family, you’re all going to learn how to safely shed pounds and keep them off.

Michael Nusbaum, M.D., and medical director of The Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey has these additional tips to help kids shed pounds without losing their self-esteem or dignity:

  • Be open and honest. If you have a few (or more) extra pounds to lose, share that with your child. Setting the example of taking ownership for your health and acknowledging the importance of a healthy weight (instead of being “skinny”) sets a positive example for your child to follow.
  • Make exercise a family affair. And encourage children to participate in outdoor activities after school and on weekends. Even little things like taking out the trash, walking the dog or helping shovel snow can add up to calories burned and muscles being exercised.
  • Avoid double standards. If you’re trying to reduce the amount of sugar or saturated fats your child consumes, practice what you preach. Let your child see you eating the same healthy food you want him to eat so he doesn’t feel alone in the quest for a healthy weight. And the same goes for exercise. Instead of sitting on a bench when he plays at the park, suggest the two of you have a race to see who can hop on one leg the longest or race to a tree the fastest.
  • Make fitness fun. Have a swinging contest on the swing set or play together on the jungle gym. No playset or backyard? No problem! Take the kids to a playground nearby, or explore a new park on the other side of town.
  • Bring it home. Create an exercise area in your home, and allow the kids to participate in exercise with you. While working out, share stories of any weight issues you had as a kid (for instance, you carried a few extra pounds during puberty), or healthy eating tricks you’ve learned that still allow you to enjoy indulgent favorites from time to time.
  • Keep junk or processed foods out of the house. Replace those foods with healthy food options like homemade blueberry muffins with whole grains or low-fat Greek yogurt.
  • Have healthy afterschool snacks available. Look to foods packed with protein, like a handful of almonds to keep them full until dinner or cut up fruits to replace chips and cookies as finger food.
  • Use small bowls and plates. A new Cornell University study published in the Journal of Pediatrics says kids eat up to 52 percent more food when eating out of big bowls. “Bigger bowls led to kids requesting nearly twice as much food. The quickest way parents can help kids eat less might be to grab them a smaller bowl,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University and the lead author. He suggests sticking to bowls that hold no more than 12 ounces instead of larger bowls that typically hold up to 20 ounces.

Have you helped your child shed excess pounds? Share your tips in the comments section below.

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