Helping Your Overweight Child With Lifestyle Changes
Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States, according to the obesity clinic at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago. Over the last 10 years, the rate of overweight children has risen by 11 percent. If this trend continues, it is possible that a majority of these overweight children will develop major health problems before the age of 20. There are no easy answers or "quick fixes" to help children lose weight and lead a healthier – not so "well-rounded" – life.
Most parents whose children are overweight tend to seek a simple reason why. They blame genetics, physical problems or even suspect thyroid disorders. In reality, the majority of weight problems in children tend to come from a lifestyle rather then a medical reason. "All families want to know if it is a 'gland' problem," says Dr. Wendy Wright, a pediatrician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago. "If necessary, I will do blood tests, but usually the physical exam is enough to clarify that it isn't the issue. I have seen hundreds of overweight children and have never found a thyroid problem."
As with adults, children who are and remain significantly overweight can develop medical complications as the weight can put unhealthy stresses on their bodies. "I would estimate that approximately 30 percent of teenagers are overweight," says Dr. Wright. "In addition, the heaviest children are tending to become even heavier. It is not uncommon to see 12- to 14-year-old children over 200 pounds. These extremely obese children often suffer from adult-like problems of diabetes, heart difficulties and bone problems."
In our society, we tend to focus a lot of time and energy on diets and losing weight. Through television and magazines we are constantly bombarded with the latest, greatest, new-and-improved way to lose weight. However, as some of these programs and techniques may be useful for adults, they are not recommended for children who are overweight. "Use a comprehensive approach to address this problem," says Dr. Wright. "This includes nutritional, behavioral and exercise interventions. Work closely with a nutritionist. It is very important that these overweight children learn to eat healthy foods. I strongly discourage fad diets and the idea of a 'diet.' The changes must be gradual and permanent. These lifestyle changes must be made in the family as a whole. One cannot expect the child not to eat the cookies his father is eating, or go outside to ride a bike while his sister sits and watches TV."
"My daughter is 10 and is about 10 to 15 pounds overweight," says Rhonda Hensler, a caterer from Nevada City, Calif. "Since birth her weight has been a topic of yearly doctors visits. The standard advice that's given is always the same: 'Exercise more. Eat less. Encourage vegetables.' At my house I try to model eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains. I try to exercise three times a week as an example. As I remain overweight, maybe my behavior and actions are a better model then my appearance."
In addition to diet changes, physical activity and realistic goals are also important to help a child lose weight and regain proper health. The activity or exercise a child takes part in should be fun and not be offered as a chore, otherwise resistance will occur. "No amount of nutritional counseling will help without daily exercise," says Dr. Wright. "I work with parents to identify a fun source of physical activity for their child." Also, when setting goals regarding weight loss, the goals should be realistic and easily obtainable. Replace the larger goals, such as losing a total of 30 pounds, with smaller, step-by-step goals. "For some children, simply not gaining any more weight is a sufficient goal. For others, a weight loss of one-half to one pound a week may be recommended. This is healthy and sustainable. Faster weight loss can be dangerous, and usually results in rebound weight gain."
Unfortunately, there are occasions in which changing diet and adding an exercise program does not offer parents or the overweight children the results they would hope for. In some cases, children may develop an eating disorder and will require the assistance of an eating disorders specialist or require therapy to help them adapt a healthy lifestyle. "My daughter is 11 years old and is about 30 to 35 pounds overweight," says Crystal Cook, a writer from Knoxville, Tenn. "She has been to the doctor and we have recently come to the conclusion that she is a compulsive overeater. She gets food and gorges when nobody is around, like in the middle of the night. She seems to need to have food in her mouth all the time. I've always struggled with obsessive/compulsive problems and I believe my daughter's problem is inherited from me. This is such a touchy time for girls, I hate for her to have extra problems to deal with."
Parents can help their children lose weight by helping them change the lifestyle in which they take part. Whether due to inactivity, overeating or an eating disorder, help is available to assist children in losing weight and regaining control over their bodies. "Obesity in children is a major health issue," Dr. Wright says. "It is best addressed via comprehensive lifestyle changes. There are no quick, easy ways to loose weight. However, it is possible for families tomake and enjoy, these changes – together."