As a parent, few things are cuter than your full-cheeked baby or the chubby thighs of your toddler. For some children, however, that adorable baby fat never goes away and eventually turns into a health concern. Nearly one out of four children and teens are overweight or obese and those extra pounds put kids at risk for developing serious health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. Childhood obesity takes an emotional toll as well. Overweight children often have trouble keeping up with other kids and joining in sports and activities. Other kids may tease and exclude them, leading to low self-esteem, negative body image, and even depression. Helping your child maintain a healthy weight can be a challenge and many of us are sabotaging our kids without even realizing it.
One of the most common mistakes parents make is giving up on healthy eating. I’ve seen it time and time again – parents will come to the office and when asked about their child’s nutrition, they sigh in frustration. They complain that their two-year-old is a picky eater and will only eat fast foods. (I’ll ignore, for now, the fact that a two-year-old had a whole lot of help getting fast food in the first place.) The more important point is that if a child is ever going to eat anything besides fast foods, they have to be offered it – multiple times. Research shows that children may have to be offered the same food up to 15 times before they decide they like it. So, while it may be easier to offer what you know your child is going to eat, in the long run, it’s best to be persistent and continue to offer a variety of healthy options all the time. Your child will eventually bite (and hopefully swallow).
Another way parents sabotage their children is by setting a bad example. Children pay attention to what you do, not what you say. You can’t expect them to eat fruits and vegetables if they never see any on your plate. They won’t get out to exercise for an hour each day if they only ever see you lounging on the couch watching TV every evening after work. Make a healthy lifestyle a family affair. Show your children how to create a healthy meal. Let them see you drinking water instead of juice and soda. Don’t just send them outside to ride their bike or take a walk. Do these activities with them. It provides a wonderful opportunity for bonding and gives your child healthy behavior to model.
Not providing healthy food options sets children up for failure. I have had parents complain that “all he ever wants to drink is juice” or “she only likes to snack on chips and cookies”, but I always have to remind them that their children are not the ones who buy the groceries for the house. There are very few people who, if given the choice between an apple and a bag of cookies, will choose the apple. As parents, it’s our job to control what snack options are available in the home. Next time you go to the grocery store, leave the chips and cookies on the shelves and bring home fruits, nuts, and popcorn kernels instead. Instead of buying juice and soda, bring home some extra water to infuse with fruit flavors.
Avoid forcing kids to clean their plate. We’ve all heard it before – “there are starving children in this world, clean your plate”. Aside from the fact that you shouldn’t be placing all of the world’s hunger issues on your child’s shoulders, forcing them to eat when they are full sets them up to miss satiety cues in future.
This is a set up for taking in excess calories. If you are a parent who insists that their child cleans their plate, try picking up smaller portion sizes. If your child is still hungry when they’re done, they’ll let you know.
Don’t be a drill sergeant. Even the most well-meaning parents can overdo it while trying to make sure their kids maintain a healthy lifestyle. There is no need to chain your child to the treadmill or drag them into the weight room. In fact, placing your child on an intense training regimen can actually do more harm than good since their bodies aren’t ready for adult-style regimens. Physical activity for kids should be fun – a family bike ride, walk, or dance competition will do just fine. Whatever it is, just make sure that they are active for 60 minutes each day.
Watching your child struggle with weight issues is tough but the good thing is there is a whole lot you can do to help them. Your child should have their weight and BMI monitored during annual visits to their pediatrician. If you have concerns about your child’s weight and nutrition, remember that your pediatrician is a valuable resource for helping you raise happy and healthy kids.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in Nassau, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.