Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that kids follow their parents’ behavior, whether they’re working out or sitting on the couch. Consider getting an activity tracker or pedometers for the whole family and compare your steps at the end of the day. If you haven’t reached your step goal, take a walk with the kids before dinner. Or just set a goal to be active for 20 minutes a day. “Kids have a much higher chance of beating obesity when their family is working toward a healthier lifestyle together,” says Suzanne Cuda, MD, co-author of the Pediatric Obesity Algorithm and associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
It’s not helpful to tell your child she’s overweight or obese since that can contribute to poor body image down the road. Instead, tell her you’re focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a family. David G. Scott, coordinator of pediatric exercise physiology at The Goryeb Kid-FIT Program, agrees, noting, “We never use the words fat or obese with children [because] most of these kids have experienced fat shaming or bullying before, so we’re very conscious of that when they come in.”
If you’re worried about your child’s diet, it’s critical to tackle the weight issue as a family, rather than letting him go it alone.
Losing weight is a challenge for anyone, but it can be especially daunting for kids. “Depending on how much weight your child has to lose, it will take at least a year of healthy eating and exercise for him to get to his target weight,” says Cuda. She stresses the importance of staying away from anything with added sugar—particularly soda and juice—as well as fast food. “Kids should be eating a balanced diet with protein, whole grains, plenty of vegetables and dairy,” adds Cuda.
The main key to living a healthy lifestyle and staying on track is heavily rooted in moderation. “By teaching children correct portion sizes, they can accurately eat the correct amount if they’re away from home,” says Jill Sharon, MD, the founder of the Fresh Future program and a pediatrician who specializes in obesity medicine. And though it might be tough for kids to keep away from sweets when you’re not there to watch them, there are ways to keep them healthy without being with them 24/7.
Scott agrees you can’t deny children certain foods completely, especially when they’re in a social setting. “Of course you wouldn’t have kids tell their peers they couldn’t eat certain foods at a birthday party—that would make them feel ostracized,” he explains. “Instead have them fill half their plate with salad, so there’s only so much room for less healthy foods. So rather than having two hamburgers, they’ll stick to one.”
The most important outcome of tackling childhood obesity? We need to make sure our kids embrace healthy habits at a young age so they’re more likely to lead healthy, active adult lives.