Dieting and the Overweight Child: What Approach Is Best?

Dieting and the Overweight Child: What Approach Is Best?

Your child is overweight. Do you put him on a strict diet? Ban all junk foods? Success depends on using the right approach.

By Jane Schwartz, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

Your child is overweight, and at risk for chronic health issues. Do you put him on a strict diet? Ban all junk foods? Success depends on using the right approach.

Making changes in the diet of overweight kids involves more than a list of dos and don'ts. Drastic restrictions and constant hovering are not productive. Parents need to work with their kids to help them make healthier choices.

The following strategies can help you help your child think differently about food, hunger and eating patterns.

Teach your child the difference between hunger and emotions
Hunger usually involves a physical sensation. Help them recognize those signals, such as a gnawing feeling or growling in the stomach. Studies have shown that children who were trained to recognize their own cues of hunger and fullness were able to control their eating better.

Help your kids come up with a list of things to do if they determine their "hunger" is really just something else. Kids, like adults, will eat out of boredom, anxiety, procrastination or a host of other reasons. Taking a walk, writing in a journal, talking to a trusted friend or playing a board game can serve as distractions to get them over the hump.

Furthermore:

  • Never encourage kids to "clean their plate." This ignores their natural cues of hunger and fullness.
  • Try not to rush your kids at mealtime. If they eat too quickly, they can end up taking in more calories than they really need.
  • Avoid using food as a reward. This ignores true hunger cues.
  • Watch your own portions. Modeling correct portion size yourself can help your kids do the same.
  • Try asking, "Are you hungry for lunch?" instead of "It's noon, so it's time to eat."

Avoid putting severe restrictions on what foods your child eats
This behavior by parents can make children feel as if they are being punished. In fact, forbidding kids to eat certain foods does not keep them from gaining weight and may make the situation worse.

If you completely restrict a child's access to his favorite foods, you may just make those foods look more attractive. This can lead to closet eating (sneaking food). According to one study, girls at the highest risk for weight gain were those whose parents were the most restrictive with their food choices. The research also noted that girls who lacked self-control were about twice as likely to be overweight.

The goal is not to deprive, but to teach your child healthier eating habits. And it's your job to put wholesome, appealing foods on the table. Most nutrition experts advise you to:

  • Limit how much junk food you bring into your home. Though you are not looking to ban "all junk food all the time," this helps to eliminate the constant battles on the home front.
  • Stock up on healthier foods, and give kids plenty of alternative choices.
  • Try to keep the pressure off and keep mealtime pleasant. Don't panic if your child doesn't eat all of her vegetables, or takes an extra serving of chicken or rice.
  • Plan meals and snacks at regular intervals. Have healthy foods available but avoid monitoring every bite. Over time your child will come to eat more reasonable portions, knowing the next meal or snack is not far away.

Finally, check with your pediatrician about what weight is right for your child. The doctor can tell you what is the best way to reach and maintain that weight. Though some very overweight children may need to lose weight (through healthy diet and exercise), many experts advise maintaining weight until the child "grows into their weight." It is never healthy to put a child on a strict very low-calorie diet.

Sources:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. Looking at childhood obesity. Accessed: 03/26/2010
  • Anzman SL, Birch LL. Low inhibitory control and restrictive feeding practices predict weight outcomes. Journal of Pediatrics. 2005;155(5):651-656. Accessed: 03/26/2010
  • Child of Mine. Feeding With Love and Good Sense. Ellyn Satter. Boulder, CO: Bull Publishing; 2002. Accessed: 03/26/2010

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