If you’re trying to help your overweight child lose weight safely, you have to ignore the popular diet books — and sometimes your own instincts. Although you might be inclined to put your child on a diet, experts generally say that’s not the best approach.
Instead, it’s best to stick with what’s been shown to work in scientific studies, says Dan Kirschenbaum, PhD, an obesity expert and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University.
To help an overweight child, you can begin with small changes to your family’s diet and lifestyle to make it healthier for everyone. The steps below start with small choices based on guidelines developed by experts from the CDC, the Health Resources and Service Administration, and the American Medical Association and reviewed by 15 other professional organizations.
Start by choosing one or two steps and working your way gradually into a healthier lifestyle.
Also, talk to your child’s health care provider to obtain goals or guidance on an ideal/target weight.
For younger kids and kids who still have a lot of growing to do, aim to maintain your child’s weight rather than lose weight.
This will allow your young overweight child to grow into her weight. Cutting back calories in growing children in order to drop pounds is not a good idea unless advised by your child’s health care provider.
Help the whole family embrace a healthier lifestyle.
Be a cheerleader for your family. Keep it fun, enjoyable, and positive. Then find a co-cheerleader — your mate or your child — to help you keep up your family’s motivation. You can provide valuable positive energy on your own, but the more the merrier.
Eat at the table.
Although it’s tempting to eat in front of the TV or have family members eat on their own schedule, try to carve out time to eat together at the table at least five or six times per week. A study showed that kids who ate most of their meals with their family were less likely to be overweight.
Focus on vegetables and fruits.
Track how many servings of veggies and fruits your overweight child eats. Your ultimate goal should be your child eating five or more servings a day. An easy way to encourage your child to eat vegetables and fruits is to make them more visible. Put apples and oranges in a bowl on the table. Or put washed, cut, bite-sized veggies with a healthy dip on a plate covered with clear plastic wrap in the fridge.
Eliminate sugared beverages such as soda, sports drinks, and fruit punch.
To help your family make this transition, have each family member start every meal with a glass of water. It may take time to get out of the habit of having sugary drinks every day. If they normally drink four sugary drinks a day, try switching to three a day for a week. Then cut back to two drinks a day the next week, and so on.
Limit how often your family drinks 100% fruit juice.
Fruit juice has more vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients than sugary sodas or fruit juice drinks, like punch. But 100% fruit juices also have a lot of sugar and often just as many calories as sodas. Plus, it’s easy to drink way more calories than you realize. Limit 100% juice to no more than a single serving per day — 8 ounces for you and older kids, only 6 ounces for young kids.
Make sure your child eats breakfast every day.
If time is an issue, choose items to eat on the run, such as peanut butter on toast. If your child doesn’t like the taste of foods usually served at breakfast, any healthy option will do — it doesn’t have to be a “breakfast food.”
Decrease TV time gradually to less than two hours a day.
And put physical activity in its place. To help motivate your overweight child, have her make a list of activities she enjoys and can do instead of screen time.
Increase your child’s daily physical activity.
Gradually build up to the goal of having your child be physically active for at least one hour a day. Look for little ways throughout the day to get him moving, such as doing squats or knee raises while brushing his teeth or doing jumping jacks during commercials while watching a morning cartoon.
Prepare more meals at home and become restaurant savvy.
When you cook at home, you can control what you put in food. It is often hard to judge whether meals at restaurants are nutritional gems or calorie — or salt — bombs. At home, you can read labels, use healthier ingredients, and control how much sugar you use.
When you do eat out, help your family make healthy choices: Skip the bread before the meal. Start off with a salad or vegetable appetizer. Choose foods in their most natural states, such as grilled chicken instead of chicken nuggets. And if you’re having dessert — share it.
If after three to six months those changes aren’t enough to help your child maintain her weight as she grows, the guidelines recommend seeking help from an expert in pediatric obesity.
When intensive lifestyle changes don’t work to help your child lose a small to moderate amount of weight within six months, your child’s health care provider has other options to help, including more structured, medically supervised programs designed for kids.
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