How to Help Your Children Maintain a Healthy Weight

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At a time when kids are maturing emotionally and physically, it's important to set up good nutrition habits for the future.

The Doctor Will See You Now
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The issue of child weight loss has gotten a lot of attention recently. When Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote in Vogue magazine about the dramatic (some might say Draconian) methods she used to help her seven-year old daughter lose weight, the media and the public jumped on her. Denying her daughter "reproachfully" of dinner one night after hearing what she'd eaten during a school celebration, was one of the admissions that sparked the backlash.

Parents find themselves in a difficult and confusing position when they are told their child needs to lose weight because he or she is clinically overweight or obese... The health risks to kids, especially when considered over the course of their lives, are enormous.

When her daughter's physician told Weiss that her daughter, at 4'4" and 93 pounds, was clinically obese at six years old, she knew she had to take action. Few readers were outraged that a mother would step in to help her daughter become a healthier weight; what sparked controversy were the methods Weiss used, such as snatching hot chocolate from her daughter and pouring it out after a barista was unable to give a calorie count for the beverage. (For the record, her daughter did achieve a healthy weight by age 8.)

The article struck a chord and not just because of the controversy it sparked. It raised an important issue. Parents find themselves in a difficult and confusing position when they are told their child needs to lose weight because he or she is clinically overweight or obese. The health risks to kids, especially when considered over the course of their lives, are enormous. Serious overweight in children contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

Child Weight Loss Is a Delicate Issue

Weight loss in children is tricky for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they are still growing and need to have a solid nutritional foundation to maintain that growth.

Being overweight is a psychologically loaded issue for a child (as for anyone else): Self-esteem, self-worth, and popularity can be wrapped up in it, so it's especially important to come at the weight loss endeavor as productively and positively as possible.

Here is some of the best-supported advice for parents who are trying to help their children lose weight. The bottom line: The focus should always be on health, and on making the experience as positive and rewarding - and as anxiety-free - as possible.

Be Sure Weight Loss is Necessary

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns that "limiting what children eat may interfere with their growth." So determining the right way to go about it - and whether it's really warranted - is important.

There is no one single calculation to determine if a child needs to lose weight. Some use body mass index (BMI) to determine whether a child is overweight or obese, but "BMI is tricky because children haven't reached peak bone mass, and this can affect the measure," says Rebecca Solomon, Registered Dietician (RD) and Nutrition Coordinator at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, who adds that "the decision is really a multi-factorial one."

When it comes to child weight loss, it's always best to get the go-ahead from your pediatrician. In addition to making sure you are doing the right thing, having his or her authority behind you can only help. Since some kids' BMI may be on the borderline, the first step is to talk to your child's pediatrician to determine if weight loss plan is advised. Your child's doctor will look at all the factors - body weight, age, height, eating habits, activity level - and tell you whether it's time to work on developing a plan or whether watching and waiting is enough.

The Best Plan Is The One That's Tailored to Your Child

Once it has been decided that your child would benefit from a weight loss plan, it's important to develop one that's specific to his or her needs. Solomon says that since our society - parents and children alike - is becoming more and more sedentary, kids are less likely than they once were to "outgrow" the baby fat as they age. That is why a specific plan to lose weight is often needed.

Don't forget to ask your child what strategy he or she feels will be best and most successful.

One recent study found that kids had an easier time sticking to weight loss plans that included more low-glycemic foods (those that raise your blood sugar slowly over time, like fruits, veggies, and whole grains), and a harder time staying with high-protein, low-carbohydrate plans like the Atkins diet. Consulting with an expert to develop the best game plan is a good place to start, but don't forget to ask your child what strategy he or she feels will be best and most successful.

Shift the Focus, Change the Language

Regardless of whether you are overweight or normal weight yourself (more on this below), it is incredibly important to keep the discussion in a positive light, and frame the challenge in such a way that health is the goal, rather than losing weight to "fix" a problem. There are a lot of factors tied up in weight for a child (and for adults, for that matter).

For many children, there is often a perceived value judgment associated with body weight, says Solomon. She urges parents to "avoid using negative words like 'fat' or 'heavy,' because there are too many negative connotations." Instead, say something like, "This just means that you weigh more than you should for how tall you are." Then focus on the health-related implications, both physically and mentally. This may mean talking to your child about the positive outcomes, like how much better they'll feel physically, how their clothes will fit differently, even how interactions with others may change as a result.

Frame the challenge in such a way that health is the goal, rather than losing weight to 'fix' a problem.

Showing that you empathize with a child who is struggling with his or her weight is really what it's all about. Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Director of Coaching at Cleveland Clinic adds that "Being overweight carries quite a stigma about it... Physicians, psychologists, registered dietitians, other healthcare providers and family members need to help the child become more comfortable with who they are as a person, and let them know that they are cared for and loved."

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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