Should Your Child Attend a Weight Management Program?

Should Your Child Attend a Weight Management Program?

Attending a weight management program can help a child reach a healthy weight. Learn about referrals and how a team approach can make lasting change.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer, myOptumHealth

There are a number of experts who can help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight. Registered dieticians are trained to teach healthy eating habits to children who are old enough to prepare meals on their own. Certified athletic trainers can help your child design a program that matches her interests and physical abilities. Medical specialists are called in when underlying weight-related health problems require management. Sometimes, though, the best intervention is not just a referral to an individual expert, but to a comprehensive program where all these experts work together.

What is a weight-control program for children?
A medically supervised weight-control or weight-management program for children typically involves a team of health professionals. They combine diet, physical activity, and behavior changes to help a child or teen achieve a gradual and sustained weight reduction. Evidence shows that a program's success hinges on a family-centered approach where parents get involved. Examples of programs include:

  • Outpatient clinics. These are community-based specialty centers that are usually affiliated with a hospital and run by doctors.
  • Residential programs. Short-term immersion programs are run during the summer (summer camps) or during winter and spring vacations. They provide intensive behavior-changecounseling in a supportive environment with highly qualified professionals. Some offer follow-up workshops for the family.
  • Inpatient centers. Hospital-based, intensive, inpatient care may be advised for a child who is severely obese or has serious weight-related medical conditions that need to be under better control.

When should I consider a weight-control program for my child?
A pediatrician or family doctor may suggest a weight management program if your child:

  • Has not reached a healthy weight after trying a healthy eating plan and exercise
  • Has obesity-related illnesses, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, or insulin resistance

Yet, surveys of pediatricians showed that fewer than one in four of them refer children to hospital-based or community weight control programs. If you feel your child could benefit from such a program - and your doctor doesn't suggest it first - then ask. Bring up the topic of medically supervised programs and discuss when the best time is to try such an intervention. Look for resources in your area. Your doctor can help you evaluate any program, write a referral letter if needed, and work with the program's health professionals for ongoing care.

Why is a family-centered approach so important?
Children see parents and older siblings as role models who can help reinforce good behaviors. It works in your child's advantage when everyone else in the house is on board working toward the same goals. Successful programs teach all family members how to convey a consistent message and create a positive, nurturing environment that fosters self-esteem as well as healthy habits.

What can I expect from a weight-management program?
Participation in a weight control program usually involves:

  • An initial evaluation. Here baseline weight and height measurements are taken. A more medically-focused program may do lab tests to assess nutritional needs and offer a session with a physical therapist to help develop a safe exercise program for your child.
  • Group activities. More family-centered programs involve parents and siblings in classroom discussions and in exercise sessions with coaches. Family members may take cooking classes and learn healthy tips for eating out. Your child may take part in sports and physical activity with other children, especially as part of a camp or other residential program.
  • One-on-one sessions. Your child will work directly with health professionals, such as a registered dietician, to discuss topics that include healthy meal planning, healthy ways to prepare food, and proper portion sizes.
  • Quality assessments. The more successful programs constantly strive to improve. They ask children and parents to fill out questionnaires to evaluate various aspects of the program.

What should I look for in a weight-control program?
Be careful of weight-loss programs that make promises of fast results. A safe rate of weight loss should be tailored to your child's needs. Some programs may suggest weight stabilization rather than weight loss. Successful programs tend to offer education in diet and exercise, and provide counseling for parents so that they can be good role models. Look for programs that:

  • Are affiliated with hospitals or are supervised by doctors who have expertise in childhood weight problems.
  • Have a multidisciplinary team made up of doctors, nurses, registered dieticians, exercise physiologists, and mental health professionals.
  • Assess weight and growth before and during the program. Monitoring health problems, such as diabetes (checking blood sugar), or high blood pressure is also essential.
  • Are age-appropriate, or are a good fit for your child's development. A program geared for a middle-school-aged child may not work for a late teen.
  • Offer ongoing support for the family, such as seminars or individual counseling and possibly Internet-based resources that help your child to maintain healthy eating and exercise behavior.

A well-qualified staff is important, but they cannot work effectively unless parents are involved. Many programs require parents to attend individual and group sessions with your child. Mom and dad meet the nutritionist, certified trainers, and the doctors. Be willing and open to make healthy living a family affair. Your child's health depends on it.


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