While overweight and obesity is as much a problem for kids as for adults in the United States, the focus for children shouldn't be on weight, but on making healthier choices. Kids are still growing, and severely restricting calorie intake to promote a fast weight loss may impair growth and development. Consult your doctor to discuss your child's weight and strategies for your child's specific needs.
How Do You Know if Your Child Has a Weight Problem
You may notice your pudgy child slimming down over the course of a year as he grows taller. Or his sibling may be growing heavier without a gain in height. Children grow at different rates, and it's not always easy to tell if your child has a weight problem.
Healthcare professionals use the body mass index as a guide to determine a child's weight status. The BMI measures a child's weight as it compares to height, gender and age, and it's plotted on the appropriate BMI-for-age chart based on gender. A BMI that falls between the 5th and 84th percentile is considered healthy, a BMI between 85th and 94th percentile is considered overweight, and a BMI at the 95th percentile or greater is considered obese.
You should get updated BMI information for your child at his or her annual well-visit with the pediatrician. The school nurse may also send home this information when your child is weighed and measured at school. Both the doctor and nurse can also explain what the numbers mean and where your child falls in the BMI percentages.
Dangers of Fast Weight Loss for Kids
When adults go on diets, they restrict their calorie intake so they get fewer than what their body needs, forcing their bodies to burn fat, and sometimes muscle, for energy. Children need calories for growth and development and should not be placed on restrictive diets that promote this type of weight loss. Restricting a child's calorie intake may cause more harm than being overweight, KidsHealth warns. Instead of losing weight, the goal should be to gain at a slower pace or maintain current weight. Your child should only go on a weight-loss diet under the close supervision and direction of a doctor.
Kids and Calories
While you shouldn't restrict your child's caloric intake, it's good to have an idea as to how many calories your child needs to grow and develop. Calorie needs for children vary depending on age, gender and activity. According to the 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans, needs for a girl between the ages of 4 and 8 range from 1,200 to 1,800 calories a day, and, for boys of the same age, range from 1,200 to 2,000 calories a day. Calorie needs for girls 9 to 13 range from 1,400 to 2,200 calories a day, and boys the same age, 1,600 to 2,600 calories.
Healthy Food Basics
Help your child keep a healthy weight by making sure your kitchen is filled with the right foods. Like you, your child needs to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and milk. Fill your fridge with foods that are easy for your kids to grab-and-go, such as carrot sticks, sliced cucumber, apples, grapes, pears, nonfat yogurt, low-fat string cheese and hummus. Your pantry should have more whole-grain crackers, no-sugar-added cereal, nut butters, brown rice and whole-wheat pasta than chips, cookies, candy and white pasta or breads. Other healthy foods to have on hand include nonfat milk, lean meats, beans and frozen veggies.
Easy Diet Fixes for Kids
Soda and fast foods are some of the major causes of obesity in children, according to a 2015 report published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Practice. Limiting soda in your child's diet is an easy fix that can help promote a healthy weight. In place of soda, offer sparkling water with a twist of lemon or lime. Don't replace your child's soda with juice, however. Juice -- even 100 percent fruit juice -- is high in sugar, too, and it offers very little nutritional value. Encourage your child to eat the actual fruit instead of drinking the juice. If your child drinks juice frequently, one way to wean him from it is to gradually dilute it, adding more and more water when you serve it.
If you're eating out, avoid fast food restaurants. If you find yourself hitting the drive-thru, steer your child toward healthier options such as a plain hamburger with fruit or salad with low-fat milk, a grilled chicken sandwich or a slice of thin-crust plain cheese or veggie pizza. At sit-down restaurants, try sharing an entree with your child or boxing up part of the meal to take home before he starts eating.
Easy Tips for Controlling Portions
Large portion sizes are also contributing to childhood weight gain, according to the 2015 report in JFPMC. Read food labels to get an idea of portion size for different types of foods. Keep portions under control by using smaller plates, dishing food out in the kitchen, and limiting portions to the size of your child's fist. For packaged goods, such as whole-grain crackers and cereal, portion foods out into single servings in zippered snack bags to help keep intake under control. It's OK if your child wants a second helping, but encourage her to include more veggies on the second go-around.
Sample Kid-Friendly Meal Plan
Make sure your child starts every day off right with a healthy breakfast such as a bowl of whole-grain low-sugar cereal with milk and a banana. A kid-friendly healthy lunch includes pasta salad made with whole-wheat bow-tie pasta tossed with cooked broccoli and carrots, diced mozzarella cheese and a touch of Italian dressing and served with a fresh apple and nonfat yogurt. At dinner, tacos made with lean ground turkey and served with brown rice and beans and a tossed salad is an option that suits many tastes. Fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal and milk, plain popcorn, whole-wheat toast and peanut butter, celery with hummus or a small handful of peanuts and raisins all make healthy snack options for your child.
Easy Ways for Kids to Be More Active
In addition to diet, exercise is also important in helping to improve your child's weight and health. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends children get 60 minutes of physical activity a day. There are a number of easy ways your child can meet daily activity needs, such as joining a sports team, riding a bike, jumping rope, playing tag, throwing a ball or Frisbee, spending time at the playground, or helping you do chores around the house such as vacuuming or making the bed.
One of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity is too much TV. A 2015 review study published in the European Journal of Public Health reports that every hour of TV watching increases a child's risk of obesity by 13 percent. TV viewing also tends to increase a child's intake of unhealthy treats, such as sugary cereal, soda and salty snacks, say the authors of the JFPMC review article. The National Institutes of Health recommends limiting screen time -- which also includes video games, tablets and cellphones -- to no more than two hours a day. Help your child fill his time by reading a book together or doing an art project. Also, when your child is watching TV, plan on getting some workout time during the commercials with jumping jacks, running a circle between rooms or jumping rope.
Be a Team
Parent and family support is one of the most important factors in promoting a healthy weight for your child. You need to start by being a good role model. Fill your plate with the food you want your child to eat. Find time to fit in more activity, such as a walk or a bike ride, and ask your child to join you.
Also, you want the whole family involved so your child doesn't feel singled out. Make sure everyone is eating the same healthy food. This also helps eliminate any temptation if you're buying special treats for a family member. You can also be more active together with group activities such as a game of basketball, tag or a family dance-off. This way, everyone benefits, and your child learns that eating healthy and being active is fun.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Helping Your Overweight Child
- Helpguide.org: Weight Problems and Obesity in Children
- Hormone Research: Effects of a Twelve-Week Randomized Intervention of Exercise and/or Diet on Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance and Other Metabolic Parameters in Obese Preadolescent Children
- KidsHealth: Is Dieting OK for Kids?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: BMI for Children
- Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care: Childhood Obesity: Causes and Consequences
- Clinical Pediatrics: Parent Involvement is Associated With Early Success in Obesity Treatment
- European Journal of Public Health: Television Watching and Risk of Childhood Obesity: A Meta-Analysis