In my mind, the only thing more painful than being an overweight child is being the parent of an overweight child.
As a recovering chubby kid myself, I still remember the constant schoolyard torment. (The name-calling variations were endless, but to this day, “fatso” still makes me wince.) The thought of my own daughter going through that is horrific. Luckily, she exercises regularly and eats reasonably well, so she doesn’t have this issue.
Despite the fact that childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last three decades, heavy kids are still two to three times more likely to be bullied than their thinner peers.
Then there are the health concerns. Weight issues can trigger cardiovascular difficulties, diabetes, bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea. According to the CDC, 70 percent of obese children ages 5 to 17 have either high blood pressure or high cholesterol. In other words, our kids are at risk of having heart attacks.
So, what can we do? The solution is obvious. We need to get our kids to exercise daily and eat right.
A strategy that simple would be great… if we were raising dogs. When my dog gets a little chubby, I cut back on the kibble and take him for a few extra walks. Kids don’t work that way.
They have considerably more free will, not to mention they’re under massive social pressure. Furthermore, you have the psychological hurdles to contend with. Calorie-deprivation diets should only be done in extreme circumstances under a dietician or nutritionist’s supervision.
Putting a child on a “diet” for weight loss sends a message about food that might lead to a lifetime of nutrition-related issues, including eating disorders. In fact, current research shows that restricting calories can actually cause kids to eat even more when they get the opportunity.
The same holds true for junk food. Strictly denying it makes it all the more tempting. Think back to when you were a kid—how excited were you about doing exactly what your parents told you to do? Not so much.
And your attitude is crucial too. Tell a child that he or she is fat and you run the risk of being seen as another bully. Fortunately, there are several very effective tools in your parenting toolbox that you can use to help your kids get healthy.
Here are a few. Please share yours below.
1. Lead By Example
Pushing a child to drink water while you guzzle soda is the epitome of hypocrisy, yet I see this happen all the time at my daughter’s school.
Dr. William Sears points out in his great nutrition guide, The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood, “Children copy what their parents do, and they carry into adulthood their knowledge about the way their parents did things…Much of what kids learn in the early years of life will influence their behavior for as long as they live.”
If you want a healthy, fit family, start with yourself.
2. Finesse, Don’t Force
As I mentioned earlier, if you push a kid too hard, it’ll backfire, so don’t be a food Fascist.
Instead, talk to them about good and bad choices. Find out what fruits and vegetables they like and make sure to always have those on hand.
If they’re old enough to know their way around a kitchen, teach them how to prepare them. Give them opportunities to make good choices and commend them when they do. Positive reinforcement can go a long way.
They’re going to be exposed to junk food; it’s a curse of the modern era. Stop fighting it and instead try to offer some balance.
The dinner table is a great place to apply this practice. Serve a healthy meal, but don’t force your child to eat it. And don’t make threats like, “Eat your asparagus or you can’t watch TV!” If they don’t eat it, they don’t eat it. They’ll survive.
One way to make sure your kid eats something nutritious is to always provide at least one sure-fire healthy food with each meal. For my daughter, as long as there are broccoli or cucumbers on the table, I know healthy produce will make it into her system.
Another method is to let your child have a say in what’s on the table.
Beachbody’s Manager of Nutrition and Culinary Development, Ani Aratounians, always sets out at least two nutritious choices that satisfy the same need. “For example, I’ll give them a choice of either a salad or steamed green beans,” Aratounians explains. “They’ll end up picking one.”
If your child refuses to eat the nutritious meals you make, don’t resort to mac n’ cheese just to get some food in their system. You can always offer other healthy foods later on if dinner didn’t work out, but your child, especially your overweight child, isn’t going to die of starvation if they miss a meal because they’re being stubborn.
3. Educate Them About Nutrition
I’m being a little subjective here, but nutrition is fascinating. I have yet to meet a kid who didn’t want to know what food does inside the body. Start with this fun fact: the human digestive tract is 30 feet long. (That one always knocks them dead when I teach at schools.)
There is no shortage of great books that teach kids about nutrition. Three of my favorites are:
• Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson. A youth-oriented take on Schlosser’s savage attack on the junk food industry, Fast Food Nation.
• Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat, Young Readers Edition by Michael Pollan. A great primer on nutrition that urges kids to become “food detectives.”
• Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition by Lizzy Rockwell. A simple, informative picture book for new readers.
But more importantly, talk to your kid. Read nutrition facts on boxes. Discuss why an apple is good but ice cream every day is bad.
I allow my daughter to eat school lunch once a week, but I’ve also explained that many school lunch programs form chicken nuggets out of old battery hens from factory farms who can no longer produce eggs, and make them palatable by grinding them into paste and adding fillers.
Oddly enough, she rarely elects to eat school lunch.
4. Show Them Exercise Is Fun
Getting the kids off the couch (or away from their phones) is the other challenge.
For the most part, children have insane metabolisms. And when they’re doing strenuous exercise, their ability to burn calories skyrockets.
According to Dr. Sears, the average 70-pound child burns about 2,000 calories a day. If they’re active, that goes up to about 2,300–2,500. That’s a lot of food! If your child is overweight, there’s just no need to formulate a calorie restriction.
You just need to provide healthy meal and snack options, and then get them out on their bike, onto the soccer field, or into the swimming pool. Weight loss will be inevitable. If your kid isn’t motivated to do any of those things on their own, make it a family activity.
Helping your child get to a healthy weight isn’t going to be as easy as helping Fido drop a few pounds, but it’s easier than helping an adult lose weight.
By the time you’re a grown-up, you’re hardwired in your tastes and the way you eat. Furthermore, you’re dealing with decades of stress, hormone imbalances, and abused organs. Then there’s the fact that most people have jobs that prohibit hours and hours of fun and exercise.
Most kids don’t have those problems. They’re open books, hungry for guidance—and they have lots of time to exercise! Helping your kid lose weight can be a stressful experience given what’s on the line, but it can also be an opportunity. The best ways to help your child all require communication, cooperation, and fun.
As you take this journey together, you could come out as a happier, healthier family.
One way to show your child(ren) the fun of exercise is to throw on Beachbody’s Kids and Family Collection. Now streaming on Beachbody On Demand along with dozens of our workout and nutrition programs, Kids and Family helps get your kids excited about exercise, and gives them a fun way to burn off excess energy with the whole family using basic exercise and dance moves.