Extra weight is extra worrisome when it comes to children.
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Kids who struggle with their weight are more at risk of developing chronic medical conditions as they grow up, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It seems early excess pounds can establish a pattern that leads to a lifetime of weight and health challenges.
Nearly 1 in 5 children in the United States are classified as obese, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many view the issue as a public health crisis.
”It’s one of the greatest challenges our kids face today,” says nurse practitioner Jennifer Brubaker, PhD, CNP. “In general, kids are doing less physical activity and are exposed to a variety of unhealthy options, like junk food and excessive screen time.”
Patterns don’t have to be permanent, though. Brubaker says there are ways you can help your child make a positive change for their health. (Spoiler alert: It’s not all about the number on the scale, either.)
Is your child overweight?
Evaluating whether a growing child needs to lose weight can be confusing. “Children should gain weight as they’re growing and getting taller,” explains Brubaker. “The question is, is their weight gain proportionate to their height gain?”
Your child’s pediatrician can help you make sense of it. During annual well-child visits, they’ll determine if your child’s body mass index (BMI) falls within a healthy range. That’s defined as being between the 5th and 85th percentile on the CDC growth charts.
But don’t just fixate on numbers, as weight and BMI are only part of the equation.
Making healthy adjustments to your child’s diet and lifestyle can do more good than just shedding a few pounds. In fact, it’s often best to steer clear of specific weight loss goals.
“It’s more about the healthy behavior changes than the number on the scale,” says Brubaker. “I would rather have a patient come in and tell me, ‘I’m exercising five times a week,’ than say, ‘I lost five pounds.’”
Tips to encourage a healthier lifestyle for kids
If your child is overweight, you can play an important role in helping them establish a healthier lifestyle they can carry into adulthood. Here are five ways to help encourage healthy habits.
1. Be a fitness role model
Living an active lifestyle is one of the best things parents can do to help their kids be healthy. “Households where parents can be active with their kids tend to be more successful in achieving a healthier lifestyle,” notes Brubaker.
So, start a family soccer game in the backyard, or hit the trails for a weekend hike. Choose activities the whole family can do to avoid anyone from feeling singled out or excluded, too.
2. Shop healthy
The easiest way to avoid eating junk food? Don’t buy it. Focus on keeping healthy snacks around the house for your kids and leave unhealthy food on the store shelf.
“If we are putting our children in situations over and over again where unhealthy choices are confronting them on a daily basis, that’s very unfair,” Brubaker says. “Make it easier for them to make the right choice.”
3. Don’t use food as a reward
Did your kid bring home a report card showing straight As? That’s great! Instead of ordering from the local pizza joint to celebrate, though, maybe offer up something that encourages an active lifestyle.
Maybe get them a pair of roller blades to say congrats. Or plan a kayaking trip or a picnic at the park where you can walk the trails or fling a Frisbee.
4. Cook as a family
If children are involved in preparing meals, they might be more likely to try certain things they wouldn’t otherwise eat. Plus, they’ll get a better understanding of the food they consume.
“For families that are super motivated, having a garden and getting the kids invested in growing their own food is a good way to encourage eating fruits and vegetables,” suggests Brubaker. (Bonus points, too, as it’s also a good way to stay active.)
5. Schedule annual well-child visits
Your primary care provider is a key source of knowledge and support for both kids and parents.
“Unfortunately, well-child visits sometimes get overlooked in the period where the kids are most likely to really start to gain weight,” says Brubaker. “Commit to making sure your child sees their provider annually.”