Ask the Expert

Answered By:


Nora Saul, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

Manager, Nutrition Services
Joslin Diabetes Center
Boston, MA

Q:

As a parent who has always struggled with weight issues, what, if anything, can I do to help my children avoid a constant battle with their weight?

A: 

You are right to be concerned. Children who are overweight are more likely to be overweight as adults, and there are both physical and psychological risks associated with childhood obesity. We don't have to look farther than out the front door on any city block to know that childhood obesity is on the rise. Results from the 2007–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicate that 17 percent of American children 2 to 19 years old are obese.

The best and easiest way to prevent a lifelong battle with weight is to prevent the onset of obesity. In children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for others of the same age and gender. CDC defines overweight children as having a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th percentile.

Keeping an eye on your child's BMI trend is important. Has he or she gained weight disproportionately to height? Has the pace at which she has gained weight increased significantly? Generally you don't want weight "growth spurts" to outpace "height spurts." 

Modeling healthy behavior and providing a healthy environment can lead your child in the right direction. Children are bombarded with advertising from food companies and restaurants and receive signals from adults that tell them that bigger and more are better. Make your home a safe haven from the onslaught. Serve nutritious, healthy foods at home. Show your children that healthy food can taste good. Explain why you are choosing to eat and cook this way. Most children will eat what is available in the home. If there is no junk food available, they will eat healthy food. They will have plenty of opportunities to consume "empty calories" elsewhere.

In addition, encourage physical activity. Not every child is an athlete or enjoys sports, but every child can be encouraged to be active. As much as possible, set the example by following a healthy lifestyle. Children, especially young ones, are influenced by their parents' actions. If they see that you are active and eat a healthy diet, they may be more likely to be active and eat well.

The American Heart Association recommends the following:

  • Reduce caloric intake by providing healthy foods. Select a variety of foods to provide enough carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients. Focus on foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt (sodium) and added sugars. Don't put children on highly restrictive diets that forbid favorite foods because they are likely to fail. Such diets should be limited to rare patients with severe complications who must lose weight quickly.
  • Be active at least 60 minutes a day. Increased physical activity is common in all studies of successful weight reduction. Create an environment that fosters physical activity that your children will enjoy.
  • Get involved in modifying your children's behavior. Parents who model healthy eating and physical activity can positively influence their children's health.