How to Positively Approach Weight Loss for Kids
Weight loss is a tricky topic, especially during early childhood. Learn how to positively approach and prevent obesity in the youngest generation for a healthier future.
Weight loss can be a tricky subject for adults, let alone children. But unfortunately, childhood obesity is a major health concern in the US, with the CDC stating that one in every five children and/or adolescents is obese.
Obese children often become obese adults and this poses numerous implications for health care costs and quality of life for these individuals. Thus, even though the recent body-positive movement has fostered tremendous progress for people with larger bodies, it also means many obese children may remain obese.
Is this a positive consequence or is there a way to approach weight loss for kids in a healthy manner? The dietitians at bistroMD believe the latter.
Childhood obesity prevention IS possible and there are also ways to healthfully address adolescent obesity.
Childhood Obesity Prevention
Did you know children are born with an uncanny ability to self-regulate food intake? Their bodies innately know how much hunger hormone to secrete to facilitate intake and exactly when to stop when satisfied. This is why pediatric dietitians are not usually worried when stressed parents indicate their two-year-old seems to barely eat anything.
Childrens' bodies are simply matching energy intake to their bodies' current needs. How cool, right?! This not only facilitates healthy eating but also helps children maintain a healthy weight for their unique bodies.
Unfortunately, as children age, they are suddenly bombarded with hundreds of thousands of messages about food, health, and their body. Everything from fast and "junk" food advertisements to how their friends eat to how parents talk about food and their bodies exerts an impact. These messages can ultimately interfere with food choices and behaviors, disrupting a child's innate ability to self-regulate without much thought.
So, how do we combat these potential issues and prevent childhood obesity in a kind, neutral, productive way? Look no further than Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian, family therapist, and expert on childhood eating.
Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR)
Developed by Satter, sDOR is currently the gold standard for feeding children. This eating and feeding conceptualization has been deemed, "transformative, practical, theoretically sound and evidence-based."
The division of responsibility in feeding aims to develop capable, competent eaters. It encourages parents to take leadership over the what, when, and where of eating. Further, it allows children to determine how much and whether to eat what the parents provided. Parents’ feeding duties can be summarized by:
• Choosing and preparing balanced meals and healthy snacks
• Providing regular meals and snacks
• Making eating times pleasant
• Leadership by example
• Being considerate of lack of experience without catering to likes and dislikes
• Disapproving food and beverages (besides water) outside regular meal/snack times
• Allowing children to grow into their unique bodies without comment
The harder part of this process involves trust. Parents are encouraged to trust that their children will eat the right amount, learn to eat new foods, grow predictability/in a healthy manner for them and learn to behave well at mealtime. This can be easier said than done, but it tends to work when executed correctly.
Furthermore, the first two bullet points are perhaps the most important. Children are much more likely to eat nutritiously and grow into strong, healthy bodies if parents choose to prepare nutrient-dense meals and snacks. Focus on:
• Including a variety of colors every single day
• Offering a fruit and/or vegetable at almost every meal and snack
• Lean protein sources like low-fat dairy, white chicken, beans, legumes, eggs, and high-quality red meat
• Healthy fats like avocado, peanut butter, full-fat dairy, hummus, nut, seeds, and olive oil
• Whole grains like wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, quinoa, and starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, squash, and peas
• Offering a variety of different meals/recipes to expose them to as many foods as possible
• Offering but also exerting moderation of "fun" foods like candy, cookies, fruit snacks, chips, and ice cream
Secondly, it cannot be harped enough that children who regularly eat at consistent meal and snack times with their family grow into more competent eaters. Not only does consistent eating bolster adolescents' innate self-regulation, but it also teaches kids to understand that food is often not scarce. This largely prevents overeating and binge eating associated with the scarcity mindset.
Plus, studies show that children and teens who eat family meals:
• Eat better
• Have higher self-esteem
• Make more meaningful relationships
• Do better in school
• Are less likely to gain unnecessary weight and abuse drugs and alcohol
To summarize, the best way to prevent childhood obesity is by raising competent eaters through the division of responsibility. Parents should choose the what, when, and where of feeding and allow the children to choose whether they eat and/or how much they eat of what is offered.
This surely requires some steadfast trust. Remember that the less interference from parents, friends, diet culture, and food ads a child experiences, the better their inherent regulation mechanism will remain.
How to Lose Weight For Kids
The cool thing is the same obesity prevention methods work well as a treatment too. However, it is potentially even more important to tread carefully when it comes to actually encouraging weight loss for children.
Most concerning, children and adolescents are still growing and developing, which requires a substantial amount of energy. Putting a child or adolescent on too restrictive of a diet can impede bone density, height growth, emotional and mental regulation, and physical abilities. Plus, diets, in general, are associated with a 95% failure rate.
Thus, rather than subject your child to a summer weight loss camp, a low-fat diet, or perhaps the keto diet, it is wiser to refer back to Satter. When in doubt about feeding children, count on her wide breadth of practical, sustainable knowledge.
Before discussing though, accepting that children come in all different shapes and sizes is important. Due to genetics, they will all look different and a healthy size for them may look completely different than a healthy size for their sibling, cousin, or friend of the same age, height, gender, etc.
Freely allow them to grow into their body and trust that the division of responsibility is the single best way to foster healthy eating. Notice that healthy eating habits for children and adolescents rely on the how-to a much larger extent than the what.
In terms of promoting weight loss in a child, Satter advises parents to try and implement the following practices.
1. Help without Harming
She says to emphasize providing, not depriving. What a nice ring! Forcing children to eat less or move more in the name of weight control nearly always backfires. In fact, it makes them preoccupied with food and less likely to move enough.
Instead, focus on teaching them the function of nutritious food and how healthful eating promotes positive internal and external benefits.
2. Implement the Gold Standard of Feeding
Simply follow Satter's Division of Responsibility discussed above. Beginning this feeding and eating method early on largely prevents childhood obesity, but implementing it at any time is encouraged.
No matter how overweight a child is, beginning this feeding technique can help their body to naturally re-regulate and grow properly once again.
3. Make Family Meals a Priority
The importance of family meals cannot be stressed enough. To reiterate, family meals promote better childhood socialization, emotional and mental intelligence, and physical capability.
Family meals are a chance to appreciate a meal together and foster love, support, and connection. This also reduces emotional eating and shows children that there will always be subsequent eating experiences. They naturally learn not to overindulge too often because there will always be a next time.
4. Choose the Right Foods
Rather than list specific foods, though, recognize that the "right" foods are different for every family. Keeping in mind that child weight gain because of how they are fed rather than what they are fed can ease stress when it comes to choices.
Instead, focus on enjoyable, satisfying foods that also offer some nutrition. Consider your favorite meals growing up, cultural or religious traditions, seasonality of certain foods, and plan ahead when possible.
5. Promote Regular Physical Activity
Exercise is another part of the weight loss equation. Wonderfully, kids are born loving their bodies, curious about their abilities, and inclined to move!
Encouraging activity that they enjoy helps preserve these qualities. When promoting physical activity, avoid discussing weight loss and encourage them to do it because it feels good and their body appreciates it.
While it is important to note force exercise, it is important to know the child's exercise recommendations. The most current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that preschool-aged children ages 3 through 5 years should be physically active throughout the day. Children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years should do moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily for 60 minutes (or 1 hour a day).
6. Lead By Example
Children are quite observant and will pick up on the faintest of cues. If a parent is constantly complaining about their body or how they need to eat less, a child may internalize that as something is wrong with their own body.
Therefore, mimic moderation, eat a variety of food, express gratitude towards meals, and talk kindly about yourself to foster a healthy environment for the child.
7. Worry Less
Finally, do not fret about the scale or even growth charts at the doctor. These measurements provide a small, sometimes skewed snapshot and should only be utilized in terms of ongoing progress relative to their baseline.
Do not worry about how they compare to the rest of the population. Instead, allow them to naturally grow into a body meant just for them.
Feeding and eating are two sides of the same street that merge and intersect. Beyond implementing the division of responsibility as it pertains to weight loss, the next best thing to do for children and adolescents is to largely take the focus off weight loss. Simply teach them to eat healthfully because it promotes healthy insides and outsides, makes them feel better, improves confidence, and optimizes physical performance.
Worth noting, adolescents and more and more young children have diagnosable eating disorders. Whether they struggle with anorexia, binge eating, ARFID (avoidant restrictive feeding intake disorder), or anything in between, it is necessary to seek medical attention and therapeutic help. Sometimes the division of responsibility extends to professionals like dietitians and therapists!
Preventing and treating childhood obesity is nuanced but not complicated with the provided framework above. Adolescents have fragile psyches and negative comments or memories around food and their bodies can, unfortunately, last a lifetime. This is why it is important to tread carefully within this subject.
Nonetheless, try and foster a wholesome, balanced approach to eating and health in general. Luckily, the above tips cater to the nuance and individuality of childhood obesity prevention and treatment and will surely steer you in the right direction.
Childhood Obesity Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 5, 2021. www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html.
Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming. Ellyn Satter Institute. www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/product/your-child-s-weight/.