How to Help an Overweight Child

healthy snack ideas

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has a powerful video message for you. It’s your fault if your child is overweight.

See the video here.

As a parent this message is particularly touchy for me.

Surely there comes a time when I can no longer blame my parents for my own issues.

Parenting in the 21st century is so guilt-ridden. Here’s another thing I can add to my list of failings as parent.

Childhood Obesity: No Simple Answers Please

When I’ve written about the challenges of children and weight problems I get some typical responses:

  1. From parents: “Don’t know what the problem is. I feed my children hummus and wheatgrass and they’ve never had a Happy Meal in their lives. What’s wrong with parents these days?”
  2. From non-parents: “Don’t get it, can’t parents just say no?”

Other parents seem to feel guilty and confused, and don’t really know what to say.

I have more than one child, and guess what? The way they respond to food, their personalities, their likes/dislikes are different.

Like adult weight issues, while the answers can seem simple, the outworking can be very challenging.

This is a work in progress for me, but here’s a few beginning steps:

Step 1: It’s a Family Issue

If you’re a parent and your children are having weight issues, there’s one thing I’ve learned.

The whole family needs to be involved.

It’s virtually impossible to guide a child into eating better without buy-in from everyone in the home.

  • You can’t have one parent rewarding the child with food, while the other one keeps saying no.
  • You can’t have one sibling having free access to the pantry while the other is banned.

Mixed messages don’t work for very long.

Step 2: Weight Issues Are More Than Diet Issues

It’s amazing how many adults with disordered eating patterns can remember being put on diets as children. Particularly women.

Put a child under heavy restrictions and one or more things might happen:

  1. They learn to hide behaviors for fear of punishment.
  2. The moment they are out from under your authority they have no established intrinsic basis for making good choices.

Managing weight is a whole lifestyle process. All of these factors may be contributing to a weight problem:

  1. Association of snacking with other pleasurable activities (during TV watching, video gameplaying, movies, family times).
  2. Suburban design – school is a bus trip or a car ride away (rather than a walk or bike ride).
  3. Devices – The instant gratification coming from an iPad is hard to compete with. Especially now that schools increasingly require children to own tablets. Limiting screen time is essential.
  4. Food as a reward or punishment system.
  5. Emotional status – Often where school is an unpleasant experience, coming home is often associated with “food on arrival”.
  6. No structured physical activity – Yes some children love sport. Some children don’t and daily physical training is no longer part of the curriculum.
  7. Unstructured mealtimes – Frequent family dinners together lead to a lower chance of being overweight.
  8. Lack of knowledge of healthy foods – The explosion of ready-made foods aimed at children hasn’t helped. These foods are typically laden with sugar.
  9. Parental habits and addictions – Very difficult to lead a child somewhere that you haven’t been yourself.
  10. One size does NOT fit all – As in adults, children have unique personalities. Finding what makes your child tick is essential.

My goal as a parent is to set my child up to make good choices for the rest of their life. This means guiding them to a place of ownership over their bodies and health.

As parents we are the “gatekeepers” of our homes.

However in the last few decades we’ve faced an onslaught in the form of: prolific mass-marketing to children, ‘big food’ pushing us a bewildering array of child-focused junk food, changing neighborhoods, omni-present instant gratification technology.

So I’m not going to take all the blame…

If you managed to read this far, I would love to read your thoughts.

    Scientific References:

  1. Taveras, E. M., Rifas‐Shiman, S. L., Berkey, C. S., Rockett, H. R., Field, A. E., Frazier, A. L., … & Gillman, M. W. (2005). Family dinner and adolescent overweight. Obesity Research, 13(5), 900-906. Study link
  2. Lohman, B. J., Stewart, S., Gundersen, C., Garasky, S., & Eisenmann, J. C. (2009). Adolescent overweight and obesity: links to food insecurity and individual, maternal, and family stressors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(3), 230-237. Study link.

Comments

  • Sue

    One big thing’s missing in this article, which I believe is the real underlying cause of the obesity problem for kids and adults alike. It’s cellular inflammation. All the healthy, clean, (insert whatever buzz word is the next to catch on) eating and exercise in the world is not going to change things unless you are simultaneously addressing the underlying inflammation at the cellular level, which is now rampant in Westernized populations due to the proliferation in the past 50 years of cheap fats and carbohydrates. Its; relatively easy to lose weight, but virtually impossible for most people to keep it off for the long term unless they reduce their levels of cellular inflammation The bad news is cellular inflammation does not only effect the inflamed person, but also their offspring, and not simply because the parent passes on their lifestyle habits to their children. Cellular inflammation causes genetic changes in the individual. These changes can be seen by researchers as “marks ” on the genes. They are passed on from generation to generation. The good news is that clinical study shows these epigenetic changes can be reversed with strict anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle, to the extent that the “marks” seen on the genes disappear. But this does happen quickly. It takes a minimum of three generations for the marks on the genes to disappear. To wrap up, the primary focus of any healthy diet and lifestyle must be reducing this insidious cellular inflammation in order to not only to effect a positive change for now but to turn this around for the better for our future generations.

    • JamesF

      Sue, thanks for your input. As I listed in the article, eating and exercise are just parts of the puzzle among many other lifestyle factors.

      May I suggest that cellular inflammation is another piece in the puzzle.

  • Daniel Wagle

    I have been giving this a lot of thought. Many of the counselors I have seen have blamed a lot of my problems on my parents, esp. my mother, who killed herself almost 33 years ago- although they were talking about other issues, such as anger and how I related to others. Thinking back, might have been at times slightly overweight as a child (also sometimes very thin as well), but I was never obese until I had left home. Both of my parents were overweight. This could have been a bad example. However, my Dad’s dad was also obese, and he died of a heart attack from this obesity. So, if it is our parents’ fault, it could be by extension, *their* parents fault as well. Some parents might be partly at fault if they cook their foods with a lot of stick margarine and fatback and expect their children to eat it all. On the other hand, parents might cook very healthfully, but their kids sneak junk food into the home or eat it away from home. I once gained a little weight by going to the doughnut shop on my own when I was just 8 or 9. Another factor is that at that age, when I was on the swim team, I would lose weight no matter how much I ate. I guess it really is a matter of parents setting a good example of exercise and healthy eating and many times children will emulate their parents. I don’t have any children, so this is not an issue for me. However, I have tried to set a good example for healthy exercise and eating for my partner who has had two stents put in. He pretty much is following good health habits, such as daily walks and eating healthy foods, and now gets good reports from the doctors. Parents usually mean well, but they can make some mistakes. Sometimes they may need to work through their own issues, so that their children don’t “catch” these from their parents.

    • JamesF

      Thanks for sharing you story. One point stands out:

      “So, if it is our parents’ fault, it could be by extension, *their* parents fault as well.”

      Yes I do believe there are familial cycles that go on down through the generations. It takes someone with courage to stand up, and get the insights to stand against all the inherited and taught behaviors that come down the family line. I guess a big part of this is learning to finish up with the blame game.

  • spectra311

    Like Daniel, I was never really obese until I left home. I was, however, usually a bit on the chunky side. I think my parents did a fairly good job of instilling basic nutritional values into us, but my mom was a huge fan of junk food and always had stashes of Little Debbie Cakes and Double Stuff Oreos in the cupboard that would beckon me after school. It didn’t help that I was not a very active kid and preferred to read or study after school instead of ride my bike or play outside. Every so often, my parents would go on Weight Watchers and fill the house with healthier foods for everyone to eat and I remember that I always lost about 10 lbs just by default because there just wasn’t the junk around for me to eat. I think that if parents have a kid with a weight problem, it’s crucial to get ALL the junk food out of the house–if the kids can’t have it, neither can the adults.

    • JamesF

      Which shows that it is a whole family issue. May I suggest that this is one reason why it is so difficult. Many times us as parents have great difficulty sorting ourselves out, so its a big call to expect our children to do that in spite of us.

  • Kate

    First, I’m not a parent. But I think my story is relevant. I was very aware that I was chubby by grade school. I was fairly active – I rode my bike to school, played soccer, and we didn’t have video games, but I sat around a LOT – I read constantly. I started doing sit-ups in 5th grade at home in my room because I was so embarrassed about my pudgy stomach. But that “baby fat” would not budge. My brothers were both thin, which didn’t help. I had horrible self-esteem.

    But my mom never stopped telling me that I would grow out of it, and that it didn’t matter anyway. She never gave me any message about my weight except that I was pretty just the way I was.

    Fortunately, the summer before high school, without any effort, I dropped 15 pounds and grew about 3 inches. I was suddenly slim and have remained that way (5’8″, 115) my entire life (I’m 48).

    I realize that childhood obesity is a serious concern and most kids may not get to grow out of their weight problem, but I think the absolute refusal of my mom to separate me from my brothers in my diet, or make different rules for me or because of me (e.g., I could have three cookies after school – she made awesome cookies – the same as my brothers) ultimately made a huge difference.
    I’m just saying that maybe if your child eats well (I ate my mom’s cookies, cupcakes, etc., even some junk food, everything my skinny brothers ate), and is active, maybe the best thing to do is not to worry too much.
    It’s a very different world than 40 years ago, and maybe I’m out of touch, but I do think that kids pick up on their parent(s)’ fears and it’s incredibly destructive if they are the source of the concern.
    I hope I didn’t offend any parent – I have nothing but admiration for parents because the list of dangers, health and otherwise, has multiplied exponentially.
    God bless,
    Kate

    • JamesF

      Very good comment.

      As you’ve alluded to, the environment 30-40 years ago was not nearly so obesigenic. I also believe there hormonal issues at play that can affect fat storage during different phases of a person’s life.

      However many young children do not ‘grow out of it’. Although I do wonder whether some of the negative parenting patterns that arise during this phase, contribute to that. It’s a real tightrope walk trying to parent this kind of situation.

  • Henrik Rowse

    I’ve been overweight all my life and tried so many things. Different things work for different people and I was lucky enough to find one that worked for me. I lost 24 pounds in one month without much exercise and it has been a life changer. I’m a little embarrased to post my before and after photos here but if anyone actually cares to hear what I’ve been doing then I’d be happy to help in any way. Just shoot me an email at oceanflowers82@gmail.com and I’ll show you my before and after photos, and tell you about how things are going for me with the stuff I’ve tried. I wish someone would have helped me out when I was struggling to find a solution so if I can help you then it would make my day