There are many questions parents can have concerning their child’s weight, such as “Is calorie restriction practical in children who have excess weight?” and “Does asking children only to focus on losing weight make them feel that what they look like on the outside is more important than who they are on the inside?” Here are twelve ways to address childhood obesity and improve wellness on the whole.
1. Eat three regular meals and two healthy snacks. It’s actually beneficial for children to experience hunger between meals and learn to eat in response to their own natural hunger cues. Avoid unscheduled snacks, so that children learn not to eat in response to feelings like boredom, frustration, anger or sadness. Food only solves the problem of hunger and never resolves negative feelings.
2. Eat quality complex carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fiber, organic vegetables and fruits. Sugary beverages and desserts raise blood sugar rapidly, leading to increased insulin release [See figure]. This insulin surge allows sugar to enter our cells quickly, causing a drop in blood sugar which in turn can cause fatigue, irritability, temper tantrums and meltdowns. Subsequent increased cortisol levels along with increased sugar in the cells causes accumulation of fat. Good quality complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats are digested slowly without causing rapid increase in blood sugar levels. Trans fat, partially hydrogenated oils and vegetable oils make our cells insulin resistant, forcing the body to make more insulin to compensate. This increased insulin eventually leads to fat accumulation and weight gain.
3. Eat foods that heal. In general, eliminating wheat, soy, corn and sugar can help heal the gut. Depending on your religion and eating practices as well as individual allergies, here are some food options that do not cause gut inflammation for most people – organic beef, organic free roaming turkey, chicken and eggs, wild salmon, avocados, brazil nuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, organic pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, aged cheeses, yogurt and kefir made from organic raw milk. Raw, organic whole milk contains enzymes and good bacteria that are not destroyed by pasteurization. Commercial milk may contain pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, as well as disrupted fat globules. Goat and even camel milk are gaining popularity these days! Another great way to heal the the intestinal lining and nourish beneficial gut bacteria is to add into the diet: fermented foods, apple cider vinegar, bone broth, yogurt and probiotics..
4. Children should be discouraged from skipping meals. Otherwise, the body adapts to lower calories and lowers its metabolic rate by not burning as many calories. On top of that, eating when very hungry can make it more difficult to control what we put on our plates.
5. Mealtime should be an enjoyable time for the whole family to sit down and eat together. Chewing properly, relaxing via breathing exercises before eating and communicating with each other is extremely restorative. During meals, avoid discussions about conversations that will provoke arguments as these will make an unappetizing experience for all.
6. Parents determine food choices and timing of meals served. Children should be encouraged to decide how much to eat so they can recognize their own internal cues of hunger. If a parent is ‘always’ telling a child how much to eat, then the child adapts to respond to parents’ needs and not the the needs of his or her own body.
7. Children should get plenty of sleep at night. When a child does not get enough sleep, excess stress hormones are secreted, which causes accumulation of more fat. Decrease media – television, videos, computers, cell phones. Besides making us less active, media can directly activate the stress response and cause fat accumulation.
8. Physical activities like hiking and swimming 6 – 7 days a week regulates children’s heart and blood pressure, improves circulation, releases endorphins, relieves stress, gets rid of excess fat, increases muscle mass, improves immunity, enhances growth, speeds up metabolism and reduces the need for insulin. Plan family activities that are not centered around food. Family walks, gardening or outdoor activities instead of a trip to get gelato goes a long way towards wellness for the whole family. If a scoop of gelato is necessary, walking to get it is an option. Encourage performing chores at home which fit the child’s age and ability. Participating in chores makes children feel valued, gives them a sense of belonging, discourages instant gratification and teaches a healthy appreciation of things they receive, so they won’t take them for granted.
9. Avoid rewarding children with food. As parents we need to take breaks from multitasking and steal opportunities to be in the moment completely and provide unconditional love and warmth. Children need our warmth, or they may end up turning to food for comfort, generating their own warmth by physically adding fat.
10. Improve children’s communication with one another and teach them how to speak up about their feelings. An environment of freedom to express feelings will prevent unresolved emotions which could transform into overeating as a mechanism to cope. Recognize moods that trigger eating and consider getting support from friends, relatives, ministers, counselors or physicians. Avoid criticizing our own or our children’s body or mocking those who have unhealthy weight. We don’t want to teach our children that bodies are something to be ashamed of. Otherwise, they start believing that the way their body looks on the outside is more important than the kind of person they are on the inside.
11. As adults we must proactively serve as role models by practicing what we preach. Eating good nutritious food, being physically active, getting plenty of sleep, being good communicators, being in the moment and not multitasking is challenging. Providing our children our full attention is a commitment we should make. Oftentimes we are there physically with our children while our minds are elsewhere. Children can feel this disconnect and sometimes use food as a way to comfort themselves to fill in the gap.
12. Determine the weight loss goal by talking to your pediatrician and work on the goals and methods recommended. Rewards and praise should be given for accomplishing changes in nutrition, activity level or problem solving, not for weight loss. Focusing on weight and attaching rewards to weight loss will increase battles around food and heighten a child’s preoccupation with weight and eating.
It’s important for your child to know that regardless of her or his weight, the world needs each unique and precious one of us! As you help your child learn healthy habits and model positive behaviors yourself, you’ll be helping your whole family feel its very best.
Cofounder and owner of Oak Hill Wellness Clinic, Dr. Aditi Sule, MD, FAAP, is passionate about children’s wellness and knows the importance of the entire family being involved in a child’s health and development. Dr. Sule believes in empowering young patients and parents to make informed and safe choices regarding their healthcare.