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10 strategies to help a child maintain a healthy weight

How to help an overweight child, or prevent a weight problem in the first place.

By Sarah Henry

1. Model healthy habits. Research from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Minnesota suggests that a parent's weight change is a key contributor to the success of an overweight child's weight loss. Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended "5-2-1-0" formula: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, fewer than 2 hours of screen time, 1 hour of physical activity, and 0 sugar sweetened drinks.

2. Involve the whole family in mealtimes. Don't just single out the heavy child. Instead, change family eating as a group. Start with small steps that can make a big difference: eliminate soda, serve salad or cooked vegetables first, and discourage unhealthy grazing between meals. Sit down to a family meal as often as possible, advises nutritionist Ellyn Satter, author of Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harm. (Eating in front of the TV can lead to overconsumption). Serve food family style and dish up small portions; a child can always ask for seconds if still hungry.

3. Include physical activity in family life. The AAP recommends children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. It doesn't have to be all at once: walk or bike to school together, take active outings on weekends, involve children in active chores like vacuuming or making beds, find a team sport or individual physical pursuit that your child enjoys. Promote activity (which sounds like fun) versus exercise (which seems like a chore) that causes the overweight child no embarrassment.

4. Make meal times pleasurable. Once at the table, keep the focus off the food and on connecting over conversation. Don't use certain foods as a punishment or reward, avoiding comments like: "You can have a piece of cake if you eat the broccoli first." And don't insist that a child clean his or her plate. Help your child learn to stop eating when full and eat only when hungry.

5. Offer healthy snacks. Chips, cookies, and candy should be an occasional treat, not a daily habit. Instead, offer nutrition-rich foods: fresh fruits and vegetables; low-sugar, whole-grain cereal or bread; nuts; and yogurt.

6. Resist labels. Resist calling some foods "good" and others "bad". Banning certain foods make it more likely a child will rebel and seek out the forbidden treats.

7. Engage kids in the process. Children whose opinions are valued are more likely to follow the rules. Consider a child's ideas for family physical activity. Set limits together, such as play time before screen time. Pack school lunches together if the cafeteria isn't an option or serving healthy meals. Find nourishing recipes and cook them together.

8. Keep the focus on improving health, rather than losing weight. Avoid common parenting pitfalls like micro-managing your child's every bite, restricting calories, or skipping meals (especially breakfast). Talking too much about calories, fat, and dieting, or dragging out the scales on a regular basis can backfire, as can negative comments about weight, shape, or body image (including your own). Instead, emphasise how eating healthy food and participating in physical activity helps a person thrive in mind, body, and soul.

9. Offer emotional support. A child needs to feel accepted, loved, special, and important — regardless of shape or size. Children's feelings about themselves can be shaped by how they think their parents feel about them, according to the national Weight-control Information Network. Listen to your child's weight concerns, provide empathy, and search for solutions together.

10. Seek help: As this family's story reveals, shedding excess weight isn't easy, but you don't have to go it alone. Programs are popping up nationwide, designed to help obese or overweight children and teenagers. Some are affiliated with to hospitals, universities, or community-based organizations. Ask your child's health care provider for suggestions.

Resources:

Sarah Henry is a Bay Area-based freelance food writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale.

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