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How to help your overweight child develop healthy habits

March 24, 2016

In today’s culture, weight is a very sensitive subject, especially when it comes to children and teens. During this stage, they often suffer from low self-esteem and lack self-confidence due to weight concerns. Approaching weight issues with them can be a difficult task, which deserves special attention.

As a parent you can do a lot to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight. You play an important role in helping them develop a healthy relationship with food and their body. This can be anything from providing positive encouragement to involving the whole family. When helping an overweight or obese child develop healthier habits, the main goal should be to reduce the rate of weight gain while still allowing for proper growth and development.

Here are some ways you can support your overweight or obese child and help them develop long-term healthy habits.

Pay attention to feelings.

Is your child depressed or concerned about their weight? Do they get teased in school for carrying excess weight? Listening to their feelings and concerns can help you figure out your plan of action. Ask how they feel about their weight. If your child says to you, “I am fat and ugly,” instead of brushing it off and saying “No, you’re not,” use this opportunity to talk about why they feel like this. Learn where these thoughts come from. Kids are more likely to open up when they are asked questions. Avoid putting blame on your child or even yourself.

Focus on “can” instead of “cannot.”

Steer away from saying things such as “you can’t have this, or you can’t have that.” Focus on the foods that provide more nutrients for the growing body. See what happens when you say something like “Let’s try this snack and see how you like it.” Encourage replacing less nutritious foods such as chips, candy, and cookies with healthier snack items such as apples, carrots, peanut butter or yogurt. Make a list of healthful foods for your child to pick from. Maybe even make it a game where they can match specific snack foods together.

Encourage healthy eating and discourage dieting.

When parents encourage dieting and food restriction, it often backfires. It teaches unhealthy habits and often labels specific foods as “good” or “bad,” which could lead to disordered eating. This can also cause guilt after consuming the “bad” foods. Strive for balance and include all five food groups (fruit, vegetables, dairy, protein, and grains) every day. Remember all foods can fit into a healthy diet; we just have to watch the portions.

Watch your words and actions.

Kids mirror what they see and hear. If they frequently hear phrases such as “I am fat” or “my stomach is too big” or “I need to lose weight,” it will make them wonder if they should feel the same way about themselves. Switch the way you talk to yourself and see if it rubs off on them. Provide compliments that do not involve physical looks, such as you are a talented dancer, you are funny, or you are great at painting. Teach them that physical appearance is not everything. Be a positive role model and treat yourself the way you would want your son or daughter to treat themselves. 

Stay away from using food as a reward.

Food is commonly used as a reward for good behavior and academic performance. These foods often are of little nutritional value and provide kids and teens with unnecessary calories and fat, which can lead to weight gain. Promising a dessert after eating vegetables sends mixed messages that vegetables are less valuable. Use non-food rewards to encourage positive behavior such as concert tickets to see their favorite band, sporting equipment or a movie ticket. Using food as a reward also teaches kids to eat when they are not hungry and associate feelings with food.

Get the whole family involved.

Involve the whole family in living a healthy lifestyle by doing activities together such as cooking as a family, taking walks after dinner, or going grocery shopping together. This benefits the entire family and does not single out the child who is overweight. Nothing can be more challenging than one child having to choose water while their siblings are free to drink whatever they want. Children are more successful when the family improves healthy behaviors together.

Focus on individual progress, not weight.

Weight is not a measure of who we are as a person, or how healthy or successful we are. It is a number. Focus more on progress and the positive changes they have made. Encourage healthy behaviors such as increasing physical activity, eating a balanced diet, watching portions, and snacking on healthful foods. As long as you see progress in your child’s habits, it is a win. As they continue to make healthy choices and become more active, they might “grow into” their weight.

Set small but attainable goals.

There is no way around it, there will be setbacks. Stay strong and reconstruct goals if they are not working for the family. Setting small goals can help prevent that overwhelming feeling. Put goals in your child’s hands; ask what they are able and willing to do. These goals can be as simple as exercising for an extra 15 minutes, replacing one sweet snack with a healthier snack, or watching one less hour of television at night. What are you willing to do for your child to help them achieve their goals? Remember, obesity happens over time and cannot be solved overnight.

Recognize that you have more control than you think.

The trick is not to force healthy eating, but to be a coach and guide them. Adults are usually the ones cooking meals, buying snacks, and stocking the pantry with essentials. This means you have control over what your child eats for their meals and snacks. Stocking the refrigerator and pantry with more healthful items will give your child no other choice than to choose what is provided. Keeping fresh fruit and vegetables within arm’s reach is also a great way to ensure your child is choosing the right foods. This is not the time to purge all the less healthy snacks in the house all at once. Make small changes and over time they will add up.

Try some of these tips and see how they work for you and your family. Sometimes providing extra support and understanding can help your overweight child feel more confident in their decision to live a healthier lifestyle.