Kids are rarely prescribed a diet, unless their weight puts them at a critical or immediate health risk. Changing the types of foods that the child eats and adjusting the portions are better steps to preventing or treating overweight. These approaches work best for growing children, emotionally and physically.
Encourage your child to eat a healthy breakfast, to eat regular meals, and to engage in exercise most days of the week. Some research shows that, especially for teens, dieting can be counterproductive and can increase the risk of eating disorders and weight fluctuations.
It's best to help children create healthy eating patterns for a lifetime rather than teaching them to deny themselves needed nutrients or to ignore their body's hunger signals. To help young children build a healthy relationship with food and to help your family avoid food struggles, focus on helping your child makes small changes, such as:
- Help your child feel good about him/herself, no matter his/her shape or size, and model good health behaviors. Focus on choosing healthier foods, increasing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lean proteins. Encourage more exercise by getting your child involved in sports, cycling (with a helmet and no head phones), dancing, playing outside, or any other activity he/she enjoys. Get moving as a family by taking family walks, playing tag, creating your own games, or hiking together. Be prepared to make several suggestions for food choices and exercises - kids can be reluctant to change at first. Do your best to stay positive and remember that change can happen, but it progresses in small steps.
- Evaluate the family diet: Give your family's diet an honest look. Start with the pantry. Are sugar cereals, soda, potato chips, crackers (made with enriched white flour), and cookies staples in your home? Look in your freezer – is it packed with packaged frozen meals, French fries, pizza bites, and ice cream? If so, start by creating a staple make-over list, substituting some of these foods for foods for healthier ones.
Healthy pantry staples include: Canned pineapple in its own juice, mandarin oranges (great in salads, too), natural, unsweetened apple sauce, baked blue corn chips, salsa, bean dip, low-sugar cereals (100% whole grains on the ingredient list), whole grain crackers, and low-fat popcorn.
Healthy freezer options include: Frozen fruit such as bananas, cherries, mango, peaches, berries. Frozen veggies such as broccoli, petite peas, edamame in its pod (kids like to pop them). Homemade frozen soups, homemade leftovers, chicken breast, whole wheat bread, or whole wheat pizza crusts make good meal starters.
Fresh Options: Pre-washed romaine, spring mix, salad, broccoli slaw, shredded cabbage, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, raw cauliflower and raw broccoli, jicama, sweet potatoes (great for baked fries with seasoning and low fat sour cream). Fresh fruit: bananas (when they get too ripe, peal and freeze for smoothies), apples, oranges, berries, pears, Asian pears and kiwi. If your kids frown at fruits and vegetables, try buying them as fresh as possible (at the farmers market). The fresher they are, the most taste and nutrients they retain.
Other Helpful Tips:
- Eat as many family meals per week as possible, sitting down, with television off.
Limit fruit juice to no more than 6 ounces a day. Ideally choose water, milk, or 100% juice over artificially sweetened beverages. Avoiding liquid calories is a good choice for an overweight child; although low-fat milk can still be included as a good lean source of protein and calcium.
- Be a good role model by not bringing too much junk into the house and choosing healthy foods for you as well.
- Talk positively about food, for example, "choosing the fruit salad over the cookies today will help you have more energy so you'll feel good at dance class and can study for your test."
- Limit TV and video games to no more than 2 hours a day. Don't put a TV in a child's room; research has clearly demonstrated that it's correlated with obesity later in life. When choosing video games, consider dance revolution or games that involve movement. Kids need 60 minutes of physical activity a day for healthy growth, muscle and even brain development! And did you know exercise helps with improving your memory?
- A serving of fruit can be included at each meal time to help curb sweet cravings and fuel up with a good source of complex carbohydrates and fiber. Fruit consumption is also associated with better overall health.