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How to Help an Overweight or Obese Child

Ask a parent to name the greatest health threat to children and you'll hear about drinking or drugs. Rarely will anyone cite obesity, even though it can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and social isolation.

Unfortunately, obesity in children is extremely common. Almost 1 child in 5 is overweight, according to the CDC. One out of 4 obese children will likely be obese as adults. And as many as 80% of obese preteens and teens will be obese as adults.

Researchers place much of the blame on fast-food and a sedentary childhood. Kids today spend an increasing amount of time indoors watching TV, playing video games, or sitting at the computer. Schools have cut back or eliminated physical education classes in favor of more academic subjects, or the high-visibility sports (such as football, basketball, or baseball). Busy families often let nutrition slide, and they rely on fast-food meals and junk food snacks.

Although genetics predispose a person to obesity, the condition largely stems from a combination of poor eating and exercise habits, so both must be addressed. Weight control requires a healthy food relationship. A healthy food relationship means that food meets the basic nutritional needs and isn't used to meet other emotional and physical needs.

What to do

  • Set realistic goals. Talk with your pediatrician or family doctor about healthy ways for your child to lose weight.

  • Get recommended screening tests. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children be screened for high cholesterol between ages 9 and 11, and again between ages 17 and 21. The AAP states this screening should be done regardless of family history. In addition, the AAP and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend that children 10 years old (or at onset of puberty) who have risk factors, such as overweight, obesity, or a family history, have fasting glucose levels drawn to test for type 2 diabetes mellitus.

  • Offer healthy snack alternatives. Keep fresh fruit and raw vegetables on hand instead of chips.

  • Teach moderation. One cookie is OK — not 8. Don't order your child a super-sized, fast-food meal. It may seem like a bargain, but it can cost your child his or her health! 

  • Get your child moving. Exercise as a family and encourage your child to be active every day. Build up to 60 minutes of vigorous activity every day as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The 60 minutes should include muscle-strengthening exercises (such as pushups) and bone-strengthening exercises (such as jumping rope).

  • Change habits. Switching from whole to skim milk and avoiding sugary cereals can help. Nondiet, sugared sodas and fruit drinks are also a common unrecognized source of excess calories. Eliminating these drinks or switching to diet drinks may help your child achieve a healthy weight.

  • Start early. The foundation for healthy eating and physical activity needs to be established early in childhood.

  • Set an example. As a parent, are you eating right and exercising? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should be getting 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, plus two days a week of muscle-strengthening exercises that work all major muscle groups.

In general, the goal for overweight children who are still growing isn't to lose weight, but rather to slow down their weight gain and allow their height to catch up.

Research has shown time spent watching television, playing video games, or sitting in front of the computer increases the risk for obesity. Also, having a TV or computer in the child's bedroom is an additional risk factor for obesity. Limit TV time to 30 minutes per day for young children and one hour a day for preadolescents and teens. Take the TV or computer out of the child's bedroom.

Consult a pediatric dietitian for additional assistance. To locate one in your area, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.