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Weight problems and children

In the United States, at least one child in five is overweight.  Over the last two decades, this number has increased by more than 50 percent.

Did you know that...

  • Obese children and adolescents have shown an alarming increase in the incidences of diabetes.
  • Many obese children have high cholesterol and blood pressure levels which lead to heart disease
  • One of the most severe problems for obese children is sleep apnea. In some cases this can lead to problems with learning and memory.
  • Obese children have a high incidence of orthopedic problems and liver disease.
  • Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent change of becoming overweight or obese.

Children become overweight for a variety of reasons.  the most common causes are genetic factors, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination.  In rare cases, a medical problem may cause a child to be overweight.  Your physician can perform tests, if necessary, to rule out any medical reasons.

  • Genetic Factors:  Children whose parents or brothers or sisters are overweight may be at risk at becoming overweight themselves.  Although weight problems run in families, not all children who have a history of obesity will become overweight.  Genetic factors play a role in the likelihood of overweight but shared family behaviors such as eating and activity habits also play an important part.
  • Lifestyle:  A child's total diet and his or her activity level both play an important role in determining weight. The increasing popularity of television and computer and video games contributes to inactive lifestyles.  The average American child spends approximately 24 hours each week at these activities, time that could be spent in some sort of physical activity instead.

Talk to your doctor
If you think your child is overweight, it is important to talk with your child's doctor.  A doctor can determine whether your child's weight is within a healthy range.  Assessing overweight in children is difficult because they grow in unpredictable spurts.

For example, it is normal for boys to have a growth spurt in weight and catch up in height later.  It is up to the child's doctor to determine whether your child will "grow into" a normal weight.  If your doctor finds that your child is overweight, he or she may ask you to make some changes in your family's eating and activity habits.

Be supportive
One of the most important things you can do to help overweight children is to let them know that they are loved whatever their weight.  Children's feelings about themselves often are based on their parents' feelings.  It is important to talk to your children about weight, allowing them to share their concerns with you.

Focus on the family
Parents should try not to set children apart because of their weight, but focus on gradually changing their physical activity and eating habits. Family involvement helps to teach everyone healthy habits.

Increase your family's physical activity
Regular physical activity, combined with healthy eating habits, is the most efficient and healthy way to regulate weight.  It is also an important part of a healthy lifestyle.  Here are some simple ways to increase your family's physical activity:

  • Be a role model for your children.  If your children see that you are physically active, they are more likely to be active and stay active for the rest of their lives.
  • Plan family activities that provide everyone with exercise and enjoyment, like walking, dancing, and swimming.  For example, schedule a walk with your family after dinner instead of watching television.  
  • Be sensitive to your child's needs.  Overweight children may feel uncomfortable about particular activities.  It is important to help your child find physical activities that they enjoy and that are not too difficult.
  • Reduce the amount of time you and your family spend in sedentary activities, such as watching video games.
  • Become more active throughout your day and encourage your family to do so well.  For example, take the stairs instead of taking the elevator, or do some activity during a work or school break, get up or walk around.

The point is not to make physical activity an unwelcome chore, but to make the most of the opportunities.

Teach your family healthy eating habits
Teaching healthy eating practices early will help children approach eating with the right attitude

Don't place your child on a restrictive diet
Children should never be placed on a restrictive diet to lose weight, unless a doctor supervises them.  Limiting what children eat may be harmful to their health and interfere with their growth.

Cut down on fat
Reducing fat is a good way to cut calories without depriving your child of nutrients.  Simple ways to reduce fat in your diet includes eating lowfat or nonfat dairy products, poultry without skin and lean meats.

Don't overly restrict sweets or treats
While it is important to be aware of the fat, salt and sugar content of the foods you serve, all foods that are high in fat or sugar, have a place in the diet in moderation.

Encourage your child to eat slowly
A child can detect hunger and fullness better when eating slowly.

Eat meals together as a family
Try to make meal times pleasant with conversation and sharing, not a time for scolding or arguing.  If unpleasant, children may try to eat faster to leave the table as soon as possible.

Involve children in food shopping and preparation
These activities offer parents hints about children's food preferences, teach children about nutrition and give children a feeling of accomplishment. 

Plan for snacks
Continuous snacks may lead to overeating, but snacks that are planned at specific times during the course of a nutritious diet, without spoiling a child's appetite at mealtimes can help provide a balanced diet.  You should make snacks as nutritious as possible without depriving your child of occasional chips or cookies, especially at parties or other social events.  Here are some ideas for healthy snacks:

  • Fresh, frozen or canned fruit served either plain or with lowfat yogurt
  • Dried fruit, served with nuts or sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • Breads and crackers made with enriched flour and whole grain, served with fruit spread or jam
  • Frozen desserts, such as nonfat or lowfat ice cream, frozen yogurt, fruit sorbet, popsicles or juice bars

Discourage eating while watching TV
Try to eat only in designated areas of your home, such as the dining room or kitchen.  Eating in front of the TV can make it difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness, and may lead to overeating.

Don't use food to punish or reward
Withholding food as a punishment may lead children to worry that they will not get enough food.  Sending children to bed without any dinner may cause them to worry that they will go hungry. As a result, children will eat whenever they get the chance.  Similarly, when foods, such a sweets, are used as a reward, children know that these foods are better or more valuable than other foods. 

Set a good example
Children are good learners, and they learn best by example.  Setting a good example for your kids with the types of foods that you eat and being physically active will teach your children healthy lifestyle habits that they can follow the rest of their lives.