In the News: How to Approach Weight Loss With Children

Joanna Foley

by | Updated: May 9th, 2023 | Read time: 6 minutes

With so much emphasis on weight in our society, many parents may be becoming concerned about their child’s weight. This may cause them to wonder if they should put their child on a diet.

While this idea often has positive intentions, there are many things to consider before deciding whether or not to put your child on a diet.

A Medical Professional Points to the Numbers on a Scale While a Child is Weighed, Representing How to Help Kids Lose Weight.

Should You Put Your Child on a Diet?

It is generally not a good idea to put a child on a diet. This is because doing so can send the message that their body is not good enough and that they need to lose weight in order to be loved or accepted. In fact, research has reported that an overemphasis on weight can cause children and adolescents to believe that beauty, success and health are only achievable to those who are thin. This can put pressure on them and lead to many detrimental effects on both their body image and relationship to food.

In addition, putting a child on a diet may increase the risk of eating disorders. A brand new analysis of studies from 16 countries found that a shocking 22%, or about one in five, kids have disordered eating behaviors. While this isn’t the same thing as a diagnosable eating disorder, it still raises a major cause for concern.

Examples of disordered eating habits may include:

  • Frequent preoccupation or obsession with food
  • Rigid food rules
  • Intentional calorie restriction
  • Feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety associated with eating specific foods
  • Feeling like they cannot control themselves with certain foods
  • Preoccupation with weight and body image
  • Fear of eating the wrong things
  • Tying food intake to self-worth
  • Excessive emotional eating

While current childhood obesity prevention efforts have positive intentions, they may actually create more problems for children and teens, who are especially susceptible to cultural messages about body image. When kids feel shamed or judged for their weight, they are more likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors. In some cases, this can actually cause them to gain more weight.

What’s more, obesity prevention efforts can reinforce the concept of weight stigma, or discrimination against people in larger bodies. Since research has shown that most diets don’t work in the long run anyways, these efforts can backfire and only make the original issue worse.

Yet despite all of this, it is still true that living with excess weight can increase the risk for many types of chronic diseases. So while a child’s weight shouldn’t be ignored, there are healthier and possibly more effective actions that can be taken compared to traditional dieting.

How to Help Kids Lose Weight Safely

While dieting may not be the answer, there are still plenty of positive action steps you can take to encourage good health for your child.

Here are some things to focus on:

Focus on health, not on weight.

Even if your ultimate desire is to change your child’s weight, it is important to focus on other markers of health. This may include things like their endurance, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and more.

Encourage healthy eating habits.

Eating healthy foods will have a positive impact on a child’s health, even if the number on the scale doesn’t change. Some examples of healthy, nutrient-dense foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and lean protein. Minimizing added sugar and saturated fat is also part of healthy eating habits.

Encourage physical activity.

Like healthy eating, being physically active benefits overall health for people in all body sizes. While it can lead to weight loss, weight shouldn’t be the primary focus. Help your child find activities they enjoy so that they will actually want to be physically active. In addition, consider putting a limit on screen time or other extended periods of time being sedentary.

Evaluate your child’s habits.

There could be many things that are unknowingly interfering with your child’s health and creating a larger body size. Examples may include mindless eating, eating out of habit and not actual hunger, eating too many calorically dense foods or not being active enough. Try to identify areas that may be interfering with their health and discuss positive ways to change it, without criticizing them.

Encourage them to listen to their bodies.

While kids are born being intuitive eaters, they can learn to lose touch with their natural hunger and fullness cues, possibly causing them to overeat. Help your child tune into their hunger and fullness levels by asking questions about how their stomach feels before, during and after eating. Encourage them to eat before they become completely starving, and to aim to eat only to a comfortable level of fullness.

Avoid labeling foods as good or bad.

Referring to foods as “good choices” or “bad choices” elevates some foods while demonizing others. Like adults, children are prone to wanting more of foods they think are off limits (ie “bad” foods). This may cause them to overeat on foods that are restricted. Instead, it may help to discuss why we want to eat less of some foods (such as junk food), and more of other foods due to what they do for our bodies.

Never pressure your child to eat certain foods.

Doing so can create a negative stigma with some foods and harm a child’s relationship with food. The goal is to encourage your child to be curious and open to eating all types of foods, even those that may be less healthy.

It may help to talk about the foods you want them to try, perhaps discussing its taste, appearance, texture and more. As they become more familiar with it they may also become more likely to try it and like it.

Don’t discuss your child’s weight with them.

If kids are told that their weight is not good enough, it can create a negative body image and lead to internalized messages that may stay with them for a lifetime. Rather than discussing a number on the scale, talk instead about markers of health and why it is important to take good care of their bodies, no matter what body size they may currently have.

Model a healthy relationship with your body and food to your child.

It will be hard for your child to accept themselves if they constantly see their caregiver complaining about their own body, frequently going on diets or talking negatively about their own weight. Even if you are working on modifying your body size, try to only model a positive body image and relationship with food to your child.

Make sure your child knows their self-worth aside from their weight.

It is so important for your child to feel loved no matter what they look like or weigh. A confident child will be one who is more receptive to health messages. Try to get in the habit of talking about things you like about your child that have nothing to do with their appearance, such as how they act towards others, or how responsible or helpful they are.

With all of these tips in mind, it is also important to acknowledge that none of these actions may lead to immediate changes in weight. Still, they are steps that can help make small but significant changes and lead to an overall healthier and more confident child.

In summary

While childhood obesity can have a negative impact on a child’s overall health, putting a child on a diet is rarely the right answer to the problem. Instead, encouraging healthy habits and modeling a healthy lifestyle and relationship with your own body are a few things that can have a positive impact on your child’s health.

Ultimately, if you are concerned about your child’s weight, it may be a good idea to talk to their pediatrician or other related healthcare professional without them present. In some cases, additional actions may need to be taken, as the approach to health is a highly individualized one that should meet your child’s unique needs and lifestyle.

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