Don’t Call it a Diet: Helping Children Lose Weight

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six or 17% of children and adolescents between ages 2 and 19 are considered obese. Although the number of children dealing with significant weight issues in the US has held steady over the last several years, it still means 12.7 million young people continue to face diet and exercise challenges on a regular basis. The prevalence for obesity remains highest for Hispanic children (21.9%), followed by Blacks (19.5%), Whites (14.7%) and Asians (8.6%).   

Although many children do need to lose weight, getting them to do so can be difficult for several reasons. It’s very important to take an approach that helps your child lose weight, while at the same time not distorting their relationship with food. Habits can be changed, but deep-seated preoccupations with food are a much bigger challenge that some spend their entire lives trying to conquer. The utmost care must be taken to avoid creating unhealthy food fixations in your child as you encourage them to lose weight. 

It’s essential that the child maintains a positive self-image throughout the process — no matter their body size — and not become obsessed with a particular weight or looking a certain way. The focus should always be on the child, not the scale.

Getting children to eat healthier can be a tough sell, especially if alternative foods aren’t tasty or the whole family isn’t on board with the effort. Here are some tips to guide you through the challenging task of helping your child lose weight with a focus on keeping their mind and self-image as healthy as their body.  

Consult your doctor —  

Be sure your child actually needs to lose weight. There is no single calculation that determines if a child is overweight. Using the body mass index (BMI) scale is tricky because children of a certain age haven’t reached peak bone mass, which can affect the measurement. Consult your pediatrician and share any food program with him or her to be sure your child is getting the proper nourishment for their age. 

Focus on health — 

When speaking with your child, always keep the focus on health. Never mention body appearance or clothing sizes, or infer this is a problem that needs to be “fixed.” You can call the program a fitness plan or anything else you like — just don’t call it a diet!

Food is fuel —  

Never use food as a reward for children or denial of certain foods as a punishment. Under no circumstances should you punish your child if you find he or she has eaten something they should have avoided. Keep your child’s relationship with food healthy by stressing in positive ways how food is fuel for the body and what it does for us, while avoiding presenting food as a pleasure device.

Long-term success —  

Studies show that 65% of dieters gain all their weight back and then some within three years. Regarding weight, we must lose it how we want to live it. Be sure to choose a plan for your child that is sustainable throughout life, not a quick fix to reach a certain weight that they can’t maintain once the scale reads the “right” number. Keep in mind that you’re teaching your child a new lifestyle and relationship with food.  

Family participation —  

Research shows that the home environment is extremely powerful in a child’s weight loss success or failure. The number one predictor of childhood weight loss success is if parents lose weight themselves. Set a good example for your child, join them in the program to provide support, and be sure no one at home is eating the same unhealthy foods your child is trying to avoid.  

Exercise essentials —  

All children should get at least one hour of physical activity per day. Disguise exercise as fun time through activities like biking, swimming, dance, gymnastics, jumping rope, or running games like tag. Take family walks and explore hiking trails. Limit time in sedentary activities like TV, video games, and cell phone usage. 

Sleep on it —  

Be sure your child is getting eight hours of quality sleep per night. Sleep deprivation actually increases hormones that stimulate appetite.

Conscious eating —  

End mindless eating by discouraging eating in front of the TV or eating fast food in the car. Make eating its own event, preferably with the whole family at the table with no cell phones. Never force a child to clean their plate, and allow them to finish when they are full. Teach your child to listen to their body for when it’s time to eat, not simply because it’s dinnertime. 

Cut sugar —  

In weight gain (and many disease processes), sugar is the main culprit, not fat. Aim for low-glycemic foods that don’t turn into sugar (glucose) which will cause blood sugar to spike and then crash, ultimately leaving your child hungrier. Avoid high-glycemic foods from processed grains (chips, white bread, rice, pasta, pretzels, taco shells, etc.), as well as starchy foods like potatoes, quick oats, wheat, and corn. Hispanic children are the most obese, largely because they exist on a high-glycemic cultural diet that’s based on rice, beans, corn, and wheat (all starch). This is why by age 70, 50% of Hispanic/Latina women and 44.3% of men can expect to be diagnosed with diabetes. Avoid fruit juices for the same reason, choosing instead low-glycemic options like green apple slices, berries, nuts/unsweetened nut butters, and plain whole milk yogurt. Low-glycemic foods take more time to digest, allowing your child to feel full longer. 

Fat and protein —  

Include protein and healthy fats at every meal. Good fats like olive oil and saturated fat from dark meat chicken and leaner cuts of beef help us feel satiated, won’t spike blood sugar, and won’t trigger the munchies. Protein is more filling and stimulates hormones necessary for the release of body fat for energy. One pot meals made in a crock pot are great choices to add healthy, satiating fats to a meal along with plenty of vegetables for fiber. Consider eggs or sausage for breakfast instead of sugary cereals.  

Quinoa swap —  

Consider quinoa if your child is having a difficult time avoiding processed grains. While it’s a medium-glycemic food, it provides the same mouth feel and similar taste as rice or wheat. (Use only in moderation.)

Sauces and seasonings —  

Your child will eat healthier if the food tastes great. Most of the time, this is just a matter of sauces and seasonings. Even a salad can be rendered unhealthy with the wrong dressing. A great place to start is Healthy Sauces, Dressings & Toppings by Mark Sisson.

Alternative flours —  

Explore alternative flours that aren’t grain or starch-based such as coconut flour and almond flour. The Internet is full of great recipes for things like pancakes, muffins, and cookies using alternative flours, so your child doesn’t have to feel deprived.

Stevia —  

A natural sweetener that contains no sugar and does not raise blood sugar, stevia is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant. Available in both powdered and liquid form, you can buy stevia to sweeten your baked goods and it can easily be substituted for sugar in most recipes. Just make sure the only ingredient on the label is stevia!                                       

For more information on Dr. Sadeghi’s services and public presentations please visit him at Be Hive of Healing Integrative Medical Center. You can also sign up for his monthly holistic health newsletter or get a copy of his yearly wellness journal, MegaZEN. Dr. Sadeghi is also the author of two books, Within: A Spiritual Awakening to Love and Weight Loss, and The Clarity Cleanse: 12 Steps to Finding Renewed Energy, Spiritual Fulfillment, and Emotional Healing.

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