Avoiding Childhood Obesity

These proven and simple tactics can help your child stay fit, not fat.

Stacey Colino November 26, 2010

1. Teach by example.
A Prevention survey found that children whose parents keep in shape are much more likely to have healthy body weights themselves. "There's nothing worse than telling a child what he needs to do and not doing it yourself," says Elizabeth Ward, R.D., a Boston nutritional consultant and author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids (Adams Media, 2002). "Set a good example and get your nutritional house in order first."

2. Don't say "clean your plate."
Young children instinctively know how much food they need. That instinct can disappear, however, when parents serve kids overly large portions or push them to eat more. A study at Penn State University in University Park illustrated this: When three-year-olds were served a larger-than-normal serving of macaroni and cheese, they ate only until their hunger was satisfied; five-year-olds, on the other hand, chowed down to excess. Encourage kids to eat enough to satisfy their appetites and stop before they're truly full.

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3. Play with your kids.
Parents who regularly exercise with their children reduce their risk of becoming overweight. "Kids really mimic what their parents do—and that includes physical activity," says Reginald Washington, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' task force on obesity. "Engage children in activities with you, such as taking walks or riding bikes together." In the Prevention survey, 76 percent of kids said they actually like to exercise with their parents, and those who did were less apt to experiment with tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Gardening with your kids is a great way for all of you to burn calories.

4. Revive the family dinner.
Children whose families usually sit down to a home-cooked meal at the table are less likely to be fat than those who eat out or bring food in, according to the Prevention survey. And it's no wonder: Research has found that kids who regularly eat dinner with their families consume more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fat. Plus, many children who are overweight tend to eat rapidly: "By engaging kids in conversation, you slow down the eating process, which gives kids a chance to register fullness," says William Cochran, M.D, chairman of the AAP's section on gastroenterology and nutrition. "I tell my overweight patients to have a bite, put down the fork, and talk to Mom or Dad about something that happened that day before having another bite."

5. Don't use food as a reward.
This simply teaches kids to eat for comfort or to associate food with "being good"—a big mistake. If your child gets an A on her report card, don't reward her with a trip to the ice cream shop; take her to the zoo or her favorite park instead.

6. Let kids serve themselves.
"If you force your child to eat nutritious foods, it can backfire," says Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Penn State University. "Kids figure that if their parents have to force them to eat something, it must not be very good." Serve a variety of foods and encourage kids to have a taste of everything. If they don't like a particular food the first time, don't give up: Research has found that often kids must taste a new food 10 or 11 times before they start to like it.

7. Limit screen time.
While TV has long been scorned for thwarting our kids' physical activity, the number of other sedentary pastimes is growing: computer games, video games, the Internet. Every hour your child spends in front of a screen is time that he could be active. Either limit screen time to a maximum of two hours a day or instigate more physically active distractions to get kids up and moving.

8. Watch the calories in liquids.
Kids, especially teens, can chug juice or soda seemingly in a single gulp—and those calories quickly add up, says Nancy F. Krebs, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado. Instead of sugary drinks, offer them water and up to 24 ounces of nonfat or low-fat milk a day.

9. Recruit them to the breakfast club.
"Children who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight," notes Wendy Wolfe, Ph.D., research associate at Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences. "Kids end up being hungrier and eating more later in the day." Ideally, a kid's morning meal should contain carbohydrates, protein, and a little fat: an egg with toast and fruit or 100 percent fruit juice; peanut butter on a bagel, and a banana; or a bowl of low-sugar cereal with nonfat milk and fruit.

10. Make every step count.
In the 1930s and '40s, kids expended 800 calories a day just walking, carrying water, and doing other chores, notes Fima Lifshitz, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist in Santa Barbara. "Now, kids in obese families are expending only 200 calories a day in physical activity," says Lifshitz. Incorporate more movement in your family's life—park farther away from the stores at the mall, take stairs instead of the elevator, and walk to nearby friends' houses instead of driving.

11. Exercise portion control.
Americans like to get their money's worth, which is why many restaurants serve entrée portions large enough for three. Indeed, a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the reason French people can eat rich food and remain slim may be that restaurant and packaged food portions are generally 25 percent and sometimes as much as 72 percent smaller than those in the United States.

12. Ask your pediatrician to calculate your child's BMI.
The AAP recently began recommending that pediatricians screen their patients for obesity—by tracking their body mass index, an approximate measure of body fat—at routine checkups. "It's helpful to see it plotted on growth charts and tracked over time to see if it is going up too rapidly," Krebs explains.

13. Rally behind phys ed.
Public schools have become increasingly sedentary environments as physical-education programs have been slashed in favor of academic subjects. From 1991 to 2001, the number of U.S. schools offering daily PE classes declined from 42 percent to 32 percent. "Support PE through parent-teacher programs," says Robert McMurray, Ph.D., professor of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And push for more activity in the classes themselves: McMurray found that kids were active, on average, only six to 10 minutes during a 45-minute PE class.

14. Clean up your kid's cafeteria.
Many cash-strapped schools have opened their doors to vending machines and fast-food service, using the profits to finance extracurricular programs. But some parents have taken a stand against this trend: In Montgomery County, Maryland, parents outlawed doughnuts from area middle schools, and in Los Angeles, the school board banned the sale of soda in school vending machines. First step? Contact a member of your school board and ask to get your ideas on the next agenda.

15. Lobby your local government for more recreational space. "Kids need greater access to parks and playgrounds," McMurray says. If enough people band together, you increase your chances of convincing the planning commission to put these areas in place or require that a certain portion of new housing developments be designated for playgrounds or parks, or for biking and hiking trails.