Helping Your Overweight Child: Family Involvement Is Key
When one of the first words to come out of your daughter's mouth is "chips" (and she's too young to know who Erik Estrada is), you begin to wonder what kind of eating habits lay ahead for her.
It is a problem millions of American parents face, as their kids grow more and more chubby. Poor nutrition and inadequate exercise only make the dilemma worse, driving the U.S. Surgeon General to declare childhood obesity a national epidemic.
As a board-certified family physician, and one of only a handful of bariatric physicians nationwide specializing in weight management, I hear the horror stories of severely clogged arteries in children as young as 15. That's no mere case of "baby fat"; it's a potentially deadly condition. Such childhood obesity grows up into adult heart disease, diabetes, kidney ailments and other lethal complications. It can make any parent worry about their little one.
When I began seeing an alarming number of parents bring their children to me for help, I wrote the book, Helping your Overweight Child: A Family Guide. I wanted a useful easy-to-read guide to aid concerned parents looking to ensure their child's health and fitness. In the book, I discuss nutrition, exercise, emotional well-being and provide extensive lists of healthier grocery and restaurant food choices.
A 2001 study by the Center for Disease Control found that nearly 1/3 of our nation's kids fit the medical definition of "obese." That same CDC examination tracked an alarming rise in the number of childhood diseases associated with excess weight.
Fortunately, there is hope for parents concerned about their children's health because doctors and other health professionals are aware of the problem, and we've developed proven clinical means to get our kids fit.
While genetics plays a role in causing the condition, unhealthy habits such as the consumption of fatty fast food and sugary soft drinks, along with a lack of cardiovascular activity, are significant contributing factors in the obesity trend. The problem even drove some California legislatures to propose a special tax on sugared sodas to help pay the rising health costs of childhood weight complications.
The biggest concern about childhood obesity is not necessarily the husky youth, but the overweight adult that he or she will become. Researchers predict that, instead of seeing heart disease develop in these individuals as they reach their 50s and 60s, our kids might suffer heart disease as early as their 20s and 30s.
In fact, studies show 97 million Americans are now overweight or obese, and experts say this obesity costs employers more than $100 billion annually. The potential cost in human lives lost to weight-related diseases is impossible to calculate. I believe the best way to prevent such tragedies is literally to "nip them in the bud." Let's get them while they're young.
Based on research and my personal experience, the best practical advice is to get the entire family involved in the treatment. Children can learn healthy eating and exercise habits from their parents while their adult role models practice what they preach.
No matter if it’s preparing a healthy dinner menu or planning vigorous activities for a child’s weekend away from school, parents need to be active participants in their child's weight loss regimen. Obese children achieve the best weight loss results when the entire family changes its behavior because it’s the habits of a household that cause youthful obesity through inactivity and poor eating routines.
When parents make healthy dining and enjoyable exercise a priority, they don't treat their overweight children differently than the rest of the family. Placing a heavy child on a diet or exercise programs outside of the regular family routine can embarrass or alienate the youth, so the strategy typically produces only short-term results. When you were a kid, how easy would it have been for you to eat healthy and stay active if other family members were eating potato chips and ice cream while watching hours of TV? Indeed, everyone in the family can use a little more exercise while eating more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
The first step in developing a healthy family lifestyle is for parents to examine their own behavior and recognize how it influences their children. As a parent, if you want your child to develop smart habits, you must model the kinds of activities that would point your child in the right direction. We all know that children idolize their parents and seek to mirror their behavior. If you want your child to eat right and exercise, it’s not merely a case of "Do as I say, not as I do." You must evaluate your own health and fitness conditions and make necessary changes.
Daily walks with your kids are a great way to add physical activity to the family lifestyle. Also, reduce access to the TV. The average child eats 600 calories a day in front of the TV. If you cut that in half, you eliminate five pounds of potential gained weight a year.
Finally, my book packs an extensive recipe list.
In addition to the essential physical elements of improved diet and exercise, it's important to provide children with positive social and emotional support when helping them to lose weight. Negative reinforcement, scolding and verbal abuse always do more harm than good, and parents don't have to be food police. It's more effective when you rearrange the environment so that there are only healthy foods available and praise the child for being active and trying healthy foods.
To make heart-smart eating simple for a child to understand, you can use the "Red Light, Green Light" system that links foods into groups. Low-calorie foods are "green," and the child can eat them freely. Moderate-calorie foods are "yellow," and are best eaten occasionally. High-calorie foods carry the stoplight color of "red," reminding the child to eat them rarely. It's an easy way for a kid to learn how to identify diet speed traps while substituting healthy foods for unhealthy munchies. Most importantly, it helps children develop healthy food preferences that last a lifetime.
With so many problems facing our kids these days, from real-world violence to deficits in our school systems, their weight and physical fitness are two areas in which you can positively influence your children. I speak from experience as both a doctor and a parent when I tell you what a rewarding relief it is to know you’re leading your child toward a future free of potentially deadly excess weight.