Professional Help: 5 Proven Ways to Encourage Kids to Lose Weight

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A survey of obesity interventions finds that parents need to set a good example and learn how to praise if they want their kids to eat well.

Image: Rob Hainer/Shutterstock

Parental involvement is critical to the success of treatment programs for obese kids, according to a recent American Heart Association report in the journal Circulation.

"In many cases, the adults in a family may be the most effective change agents to help obese children attain and maintain a healthier weight," said Myles S. Faith, the paper's lead author and a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

This week on Professional Help, Faith revisits her group's review of obesity interventions and shares lessons on how parents can support their heavy kids in their weight loss and push them to adopt a healthier lifestyle.


Have specific goals. Don't tell your children to "eat less and be more active" because it probably won't motivate them to change. Instead, identify behavioral goals, such as "walk 30 minutes each day" or "eat five fruit or vegetable servings daily." These can serve as concrete, measurable benchmarks that you and your children can use to monitor progress, make adjustments, and celebrate success.

Encourage record-keeping. Instruct your kids to self-monitor or to keep track of specific behaviors every time they occur in a logbook, personal diary, notebook, spreadsheet, or smartphone. Although this is hard work at first, it can help your children become aware of how frequently or infrequently they truly do the target behaviors you've outlined. The mere act of self-monitoring can also lead to behavior change.

Praise progress rather than beat up on shortcomings. Food shouldn't be used as a reward or withheld as punishment. An over-learned habit for many parents is to catch their children being inactive, selecting a less healthy snack, or playing a videogame. An alternative strategy, which may take conscious effort at first, is to carefully watch for and generously praise small successes, even if it's just a single bite of a novel fruit or vegetable. Positive reinforcement can go a long way.

Be strategic in planning meals. Limit temptations and try to only store healthy snacks in your house. When eating spontaneously away from home, decide on meals to be consumed ahead of time and prioritize lower-calorie options. This will also help you gradually learn the calorie content of foods and beverages, so you can select healthier options in the future.

Practice what you preach. Role modeling predicts better weight control by obese children. Even if your kid doesn't immediately follow your lead, you can still be a positive example. Make it a habit to snack on fruits and vegetables in front of your child. Be consistent and persistent as well, since it often takes repeated viewings before your actions rub off.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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