The epidemic of obesity and weight-related issues among young people has reached alarming heights. Around 25 million children below the age of seven are believed to be overweight. Experts blame the modern lifestyle of fast food and computer games for the phenomenon, alongside the phenomenon of overworked parents who lack the time and energy to pay close attention to the food they are serving their kids, or those who simply cannot afford to do so. No matter what lifestyle factors are at play, the bottom line is that when kids eat more than they can properly burn off, they will weigh more than they should.
Eating too much can lead to being a little overweight or significantly overweight. The term “obese” normally refers to a person who possesses a gross excess of fat in the body. Obese children often suffer harassment at the hands of their peers who may mock or tease them. This experience alone can leave emotional lasting scars. However, obesity also puts youngsters at risk for many serious and even potentially fatal diseases. According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity increases the likelihood of premature death and disability during adulthood. Obese people are more likely than normal weight people to suffer heart attack, stroke, liver problems, diabetes, osteoarthritis and even cancer. Obesity is also linked to mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety disorders.
What can Parents Do?
Some children are food addicts. Despite their parents’ best efforts, the children eat too much and too often – with weight issues being the result. Nagging children does not cure their addiction – it just annoys them and makes them feel shame and guilt. Criticizing your child for his or her eating habits will likely just be a waste of time and can even damage the parent-child relationship. So what can parents do?
Avoid Strict Diets
Efforts to strictly limit caloric intake can backfire, turning kids into food thieves and/or rebellious eaters. It’s better to help kids learn to enjoy the right foods in the right amounts. Parents can refrain from serving foods that are rich in fat and sugar such as french fries, fatty cuts of meat, cakes and sodas and other white flour and white sugar products, replacing them with delicious foods that are healthier and less calorie dense. In fact, parents can offer vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean meat, dairy products, legumes and grains – but only when they are prepared in such a way that the kids will actually enjoy them. Foods that are real foods are much more difficult to consume in excessive quantities: they are naturally satisfying and filling. It is far easier to eat too many potato chips than it is to eat too many roasted baby carrots!
Many parents have discovered the secret power of spices: children will actually enjoy healthy foods when they are skillfully spiced; it’s the bland foods that lack appeal. Many international cuisines use spices that may not currently be in your cupboard but that are easily available in your local supermarket. Home-made desserts can be made with nut flours and coconut flours – products that are so nutritionally enriched that they actually reduce cravings. Borrow a few cookbooks from your neighborhood library, look online to get some new ideas for enhancing the flavor of your foods or take a cooking class – do whatever you need to do to introduce your children to nutritious AND delicious foods. If you are short on time (and who isn’t?), you can find amazing food that takes only a couple of ingredients and a couple of minutes to make. You can prepare meals in a crockpot that will cook throughout the day and be ready when you come home from work. The health food store may also carry some ready-made foods – but do read the ingredients; being sold in a health food store does not guarantee that the product is calorie wise or even nutritious.
Everything in the Right Time
In addition, try serving your children junk foods and sugary treats (pastries, sugar cereals and candies) in small quantities and ONLY on specific regular occasions (i.e the weekend or better yet, only on one day of the weekend!). Allowing kids to have a little bit of these treats helps reduce feelings of deprivation. No child should have to feel that any one food or one kind of food is too “fattening” to enjoy on occasion in small portions. Remember: feelings of deprivation tend to sabotage any healthy eating plan,leading to eventual weight gain.
Offer Them a Drink Before Meals
One way to get a child to eat a little less during meal time is to give him a tall glass of water five minutes before eating. The extra fluid can make him feel fuller even before he takes a bite. You may also consider giving a healthy snack before bigger meals in order to lessen your child’s appetite.
Serve Smaller Portions
Although there is no need to have your child track his or her calories, there is also no need to serve enormous quantities of food to your family. Kids get used to whatever their parents provide. Try shifting from the buffet, help-yourself style to fixed servings, preparing small portions already set for each member of the family. Or, go with the buffet style but encourage your child to notice how many servings he has had and how large they are. You can say things like, “You can have as much as you want, but just notice how many helpings you’ve taken,” or “Take as big a serving as you like, but just notice how much of your plate it covers – 1/4 or 1/2 or almost all of it.” Asking the child to notice what he is doing gives him the beginning of inner control. Often “mindless eating” – that is, not noticing – is the culprit behind unwanted extra pounds. You may also encourage your child to chew slower and take his time eating. Research has shown that it takes a while for the “stomach is full” message to reach our brains, so chewing slowly can help this message get to the brain before a person takes the next spoonful. Pausing between bites and waiting a bit between courses also allows the “full” message to get to the brain in time to stop a person from grabbing more food.
Exercise and Movement is Also Important
Try to get the family moving. If possible, enroll the kids in physical activities after school – swimming, karate, gymnastics, dance class, hockey and so on. Or, take them to the park to run around and play. Walk around the block with them if possible; walk wherever you can with them instead of driving. Don’t let them just sit in front of a screen all day. Provide a model for them as well: let them see you doing your stretches and exercises in your home. Remember – don’t nag your child or fight with him or her as this can lead to stress – which in turn leads to over-eating. Try to make physical activity fun and normal rather than some sort of punishment for a child who needs to lose some weight.
Consider Mood and Anxiety Issues
Is the increased appetite new for your child? If so, consider the possibility that your child is using food as a way to manage emotional issues. Perhaps the child is going through a stressful transition. Or perhaps she feels insecure about something. Understanding emotional triggers to eating can help parents manage their child’s eating habits by addressing the root causes. In some cases, psychological counseling may be more appropriate than a diet.
Get a Physical Check-up
Increased appetite can be a sign of an underlying medical condition; perhaps the body is starving for a particular vitamin or mineral. Consider taking your child to both a medical doctor and a naturopath for a thorough assessment. Dealing with physical triggers to excess eating as early as possible may help prevent more serious health issues from developing.
Your Child Needs Your Help
Kids cannot solve their overeating problems on their own. Their parents must help them – not only because the children may already be “food addicts” overwhelmed by their own cravings, but also because they lack skills, knowledge and ability to manage their own weight loss program. It is up to parents to become knowledgeable – whether that is through self-education or through the assistance of weight loss professionals like pediatric specialists or obesity specialists. You are also the one to see to it that your child gets the help he or she may need. If your own interventions are not helping, try to get your child professional help. Possible sources of help include your child’s doctor, a dietician, a nutritionist, a child psychologist or weight-loss clinic that treats kids and teens.