Expert Solutions: Overweight Kids

Of course we know that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country- and now it's been spilling over to our kids. Obesity among children is skyrocketing, and getting a lot of attention these days, but I think people are still not sure of a couple of things: How can parents prevent their own children from becoming overweight, and what do you do when a child (or adolescent) is obese?

Jen (SparkPeople Community Leader)
I think the first place it starts is with parents. When I worked at the YMCA we had a program for severely obese kids, and 9 times out of 10 the entire family was obese too. So I think there is something wrong with that family’s lifestyle that needs to be addressed. A 10-year-old can’t go grocery shopping for himself. But if he is given healthy options at home and the parents provide a good example, he’s much more likely to continue that behavior—partly because it’s familiar. If french fries are familiar at home, then he’s more likely to eat that as he gets older and can make his own choices.

Same goes with exercise- if they are given a good example and not allowed to sit in front of the TV all day, they are more likely to continue that behavior.

I think parents can create a healthy environment without focusing on counting calories and losing weight. It's just about being healthy and getting active. I get nervous when I hear people asking for calorie recommendations for their kids. They'll get enough of that pressure from media and society—no need to create more of it at home.

Christie Hadley (Certified Personal Trainer)
I agree with Jen. The parent's habits really impact how the kids act. Also, where children play has changed. When I was young and it was nice outside, I wasn't "allowed" to be inside. We made up games and ran around the back yard. If we came in for too long we were sent directly outside. I actually overheard a mom say the other day that now, she’d rather have her children play inside. That is a big shift in attitude.

In my personal opinion, I feel that the focus shouldn't be on the "good" foods and "bad" foods, and children should never be put on a "diet." The focus should be on a healthy lifestyle—an eat to win attitude so a child can be the best soccer player, ballerina, or math wizard she can be.

Nicole (SparkPeople Fitness Expert)
Children do adopt the habits of their parents. So, it's only natural that when two-thirds of the adult population is overweigh or obese, kids are copying those same habits and following the same trend. I don't think video games, too much TV or junk food is to blame—but when a child's example is a parent who is sedentary and a poor eater, then he'll likely mirror that behavior and end up in the same state of health as the parent.

When I was a kid, my parents always sent us a consistent message about eating healthy. We hardly ever had junk food in the house, and our parents were active. My mom went to the Y for aerobics classes, and my Dad who loves sports, was always playing baseball, basketball, and tennis with my brother and me. As very young kids, they placed a lot of emphasis on foods that will make us "big and strong", and kids want that--they want to grow and be like adults, so it worked a lot of the time!

For children who are already overweight, I think that a weight maintenance program is the best. When they are growing, parents should not restrict their calories or put them on fad diets. If parents can stop their kids from gaining more weight, they'll be in a better position to lose it once puberty finally ends.

But, even if only one person (parent or child) is overweight in a family, the entire family should be eating and exercising the same. Don't single out a child or parent, making her eat salad when everyone else gets pizza. They should all be striving to be their best selves, and supporting the other members of the family who may have further to go.

Becky (SparkPeople Dietitian)
"TV Turn-Off Week" fits perfectly into this topic. Just to let you know, when we moved into our new house four years ago, we had no TV. After 2 weeks NO ONE complained about missing the TV, but the kids did miss the bus one morning because they were playing cards while eating their was GREAT!!!

Then spring came (7 months later), and my husband wanted to be able to watch the REDS on TV... and the rest is history. When my kids start picking on each other, etc., I know I need to limit TV time to only 30 minutes daily. Then we all get our buns outside—cold, snow, rain, or shine—to play for a while and we all get along better.may solve a lot of the worlds problems...maybe we would all play together better.

Joe (SparkPeople Fitness Coach)
I think the most important thing is to look at the root of the problem, which in my opinion is that kids, like adults, are suffering from emotional eating. There are a lot of factors involved—family environments that lack healthy communication and support, an abundance of challenges they face, and opportunities like never before—it results in self-induced pressure, causing them to feel overwhelmed.

When these types of things occur, I believe kids look for something to "soothe" these feelings... food is just one thing they turn to. So before even dealing with the food issue itself, something needs to be done to create healthy communication and support. Once this is set up, it's a lot easier to get the message across that healthy nutrition and exercise is going to benefit them, and then it becomes a process where they learn and unlearn a little bit at a time—with the most powerful influence being the parents taking part in the process as well.

Healthy nutrition and exercise doesn't have to be brought up in terms of physical appearance... this is one of the problems adults face now. A healthy lifestyle is attached too much to appearance instead of vitality. There are numerous other ways to get kids attention on this topic, such as the high rate of cancer in society, high levels of stress, etc.

Obviously, there are a lot of mixed messages out there also, so proper education is at the heart of helping kids, and that is why parents involvement is so crucial.