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Healthy weights for healthy kids:What should I do if my child is overweight?

April 6, 2008
By SARAH HAND, For The Leader-Herald
If your child is overweight, he or she is not alone.

Overweight is growing at epidemic rates among American children and teens.

The rate has tripled in thirty years and is expected to rise.

In 2004, 18 percent of children ages 6 to 11 and 17 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19 were considered overweight.

How do I know if my child is overweight?

It is important to remember that there is not one healthy weight for your child.

A healthy weight can be a range of weights depending on gender, age, and body type.

The best way to assess if your child is overweight is to talk to your child’s doctor or other health professional.

What can I do to

help my child?

While overweight is certainly a concern that has many health and social consequences, it is important not to overemphasize weight, but rather to focus on health. Weight is only one factor in health.

Plus, research shows that it may be healthier to be fit and overweight than unfit and thin.

If overweight is accompanied with an unhealthy lifestyle, then you need to take steps now to improve your child’s lifestyle. Nutritious food choices, plenty of physical activity, and a positive body image help create a healthy kid at any size.

As a parent, you play a vital role in creating supportive and healthy environments and opportunities for your child to achieve these goals.

What should my child eat?

Do not place an overweight child on a calorie-restricted diet unless it is recommended and supervised by your doctor.

First, such restrictions could lead to nutrient deficiencies or other health concerns.

Second, focusing on weight loss may cause some overweight children to develop an eating disorder or other unhealthy attitudes toward food.

Instead, examine your family’s overall diet.

The best way to do this is to go online at and enter your personal information (age, gender, and activity level) for each person in your family.

Try to make small, simple, gradual improvements in the quality of food offered to your whole family.

Do not single out your overweight child.

He or she may feel deprived or additionally sensitive about his or her weight.

The changes needed depend on your family’s current practices.

The following list provides a few examples of areas you may be able to target for improvement.

• Does each member of your family consume at least five fruits and vegetables each day?

Bring your child to the supermarket with you to select one new fruit or vegetable for your family every week.

Create fun ways to incorporate fresh fruit and vegetables into your family’s diet, such as fruit smoothies made with yogurt.

• What types of high-fat or high-sugar foods are available to your family?

These may include fried foods, whole milk, butter or margarine, bacon, mayonnaise, ice cream, candy, cookies and cake.

Start by identifying one or two items that your family eats regularly and offer a healthier low-fat and/or low-sugar alternative.

• What types of beverages do you offer your family?

Sodas the number one source of sugar in American diets.

They offer little nutrient value. In place of soda, offer seltzer water (it’s bubbly without all the additives), low-fat milk or vegetable juice.

• Do you offer high-fat or high-sugar snacks near or before mealtime? Provide fresh fruit or vegetables with a low-fat dip before dinner for family members who are hungry and having trouble waiting.

Also, show your children what is involved in healthy eating. Children, even teenagers, may argue when lectured, but they will follow the example set by their parents.

Involve your children in planning and preparing meals.

Be careful not to use food as a reward or punishment.

They will form positive or negative associations with food.

They will also have mixed messages about food.

Good deeds should get good rewards, not unhealthy ones.

How much should my child eat?

Young children need smaller servings than adults. Teach your child to listen to his or her body. It is important for a child to eat when he or she is hungry and stop when full.

Don’t ask children to “clean their plates.”

It is important to teach children how to gauge their hunger and self-regulate their food intake, using internal, not external, cues.

Most adult portion sizes and super sizes offer too much food to a child.

Provide smaller portions on smaller plates; then let your children know they can have a second helping.

How can I promote

physical activity?

We live in a sedentary society. Children can spend all day studying in school, doing homework, working on a computer, and watching television and never be active.

Children need daily physical activity to be healthy and alert and to learn better. Current recommendations suggest 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity — enough to break a sweat or breathe hard — three or more days each week, and at least 60 minutes of total physical activity each day.

It is important to make physical activity a fun part of each day.

Don’t make exercise a chore, and avoid criticizing or labeling your child “bad” at sports.

Take part in activities as a family.

Buy gifts that promote movement, emphasize fun rather than skill, and plan parties and vacations around physical activities such as swimming or ice-skating. Remember to set a good example for your children.

Limit the hours spent watching television, playing on a computer, or being sedentary to no more than two hours a day.

Encourage your children to try new activities, join community or school sports groups, and enjoy the simple pleasures of playing.

Where can I get more information?

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s weight, consult your physician or a registered dietitian.

They can work with you to determine if your child is at a healthy weight and how to proceed if there are any concerns.

Visit to obtain an individualized eating plan for everyone in your family. The Web site also has links to other diet and physical information and a web page for kids that includes the MyPyramid Blast Off game and tips for families.

For more resources and information contact Cornell Cooperative Extension of Fulton and Montgomery Counties at (518)762-3909.

Adapted from: Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 348-273, Elena Serrano, Extension Specialist, Virginia Tech, Kathryn Branstad, former graduate student, Virginia Tech.


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