Practical Parenting: Is Your Child at a Healthy Weight?

Help your kids become healthier and happier.

Excess weight is not something to take lightly. One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese, putting them at increased risk for health problems we used to attribute to adults. More children and teens are developing risk factors for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at increasingly younger ages. This most recent data shows that the incidence of obesity in children and adolescents has tripled over the past 25 years.

“It’s a tricky problem: helping your child maintain a healthy weight without making him or her self-conscious,” says Dr. Sarah Messiah, pediatrics expert at the University of Miami Health System. “We always want to be thinking about the holistic health of the child – both their physical and mental health.”

My child is on the heavy side: how do I know if it’s a problem?

The best person to determine whether or not your child is overweight is the child’s doctor. The pediatrician or care provider will measure his or her weight and height to determine if they are within a healthy range. The doctor will also consider the child’s age and growth patterns.

Assessing obesity in children can be difficult because children can grow in unpredictable spurts, especially around puberty. “For example,” says Dr. Messiah, “it is not unusual for children to gain weight right before a growth spurt, and then they grow their height into that excess weight to the point where they are no longer at an unhealthy weight.”

Children become overweight for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, underlying genetic factors, or a combination of those. Only in rare cases is being overweight caused by a medical condition such as an endocrine disorder. Your doctor can rule this out with a physical exam and some blood tests.

Although weight problems tend to run in families, not all children with a family history of obesity will be overweight. Along with the genetics, shared family behaviors such as eating and activity habits also contribute.

Many parents consider a heavy child as having baby fat and reassure themselves in thinking that their overweight or obese child will simply outgrow it, but the research shows the opposite. In a 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers evaluated changes in the rates of obesity in more than 7,000 children between the time they entered kindergarten and advanced to middle school age. Those who were obese during kindergarten were more likely to be obese during middle school and adulthood.

Establishing and maintaining a healthy weight can be a challenge, even for the very young. But recognizing that kids as young as age 5 can become overweight, and using some common-sense strategies will reduce the chances they become or stay obese.

As a parent, there are some things you can do and you don’t have to go it alone. Community organizations, health care providers and others can help your family work together to create opportunities for kids to eat healthier and be more active.

How to help your child:

Brush up on your knowledge of nutrition. Learn how to combine foods to give your child a nutrient-rich diet while reducing the number of empty sugar and fat calories. For example, orange juice is high in sugar and calories. Eating an orange is better.

Make small changes, like keeping fresh fruit and vegetable sticks in a visible and reachable place in the refrigerator, so they are more likely to be eaten.

Check out the food at your child’s school. Parents have been largely responsible for getting healthier choices in vending machines and school cafeterias. Speak to your kids about eating breakfast at school every morning; it will help them to be more engaged learners throughout the day.

Make exercise a fun family affair. Find some active sports you can share, like bicycling, hiking, or swimming.

Encourage your child to try different group sports to see where his or her interests lie and then encourage those choices.

Limit screen time. We are a wired nation and kids are spending much more time gaming or on other electronic devices, rather than outdoors being active. If they are going to play, set time limits or break it up with bouts of physical activity.

Make sure they sleep. A rested child will be more active and alert during the day. Sleep deprivation has strong links to obesity.

Be supportive of your kids if they are dealing with a weight problem. Children’s feelings about themselves often are based on their parents’ feelings about them. If you accept your children at any weight, they will be more likely to feel good about themselves. It is also important to allow them to share their concerns with you.

Whatever approach parents choose to take, the purpose is not to make physical activity and healthy eating a chore, but to make the most of the opportunities you and your family have to be active.