As a biased mom, you know there’s nothing cuter than your baby, especially when they’re rocking chubby cheeks and thigh folds for days. But when your roly-poly infant grows into a full-fledged kid, you might start to wonder if that adorable pudge is cause for concern.
Well, you’re not the only one.
“I’m getting more and more parents coming in worried that their kids are gaining too much weight,” says Judy Simon, a registered dietitian at the Nutrition Clinic at University of Washington Medical Center – Roosevelt.
In the United States, the number of children with obesity has risen in the last two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1 in 5 American children are obese. On a global scale, the World Health Organization calls childhood obesity one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.
Why is it such a problem?
“There is a correlation between childhood obesity and obesity later in life,” explains Dr. Esther Chung, a pediatrician at the Pediatric Care Center at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt. “The earlier we can start with education, the better.”
To help do just that, Chung and Simon share their top tips for how you can adopt healthy eating and lifestyle habits for the good of your entire family.
What is childhood obesity?
While you’ve probably heard the terms “overweight” and “obese” tossed around, you may not know what they mean or what the difference is between the two.
Every time your child goes in for a wellness exam, their weight and height are plugged into gender- and age-specific growth charts or a body mass index (BMI) calculator. These diagnostic charts compare your child’s development to optimum growth levels and give them a percentile indicating what percentage of kids measure higher or lower than your child.
“According to the CDC, if a child’s body mass index is greater or equal to the 85th percentile, that qualifies as being overweight,” Chung says. “If it’s the 95th percentile or higher, that’s obesity.”
When should you be concerned about your child’s weight?
As surprising as it may sound, it’s not always easy to tell if your child is overweight. That’s because kids grow and develop at different rates depending on their age and other factors.
Take babies, for example. All those adorable fat rolls and pudgy little toes aren’t just for the sake of cuteness alone — those fat stores are developmentally healthy and fuel the explosion of growth during a child’s toddler years. Hormonal changes and puberty can also affect how your child seems to carry weight.
“I try to work with parents to understand that their kids may be in pre-puberty and that they’re going to gain weight and fat,” Simon says.
That said, if you start to notice your child is experiencing health issues associated with carrying excess weight, like shortness of breath or joint pain, talk with your child’s pediatrician.
How does obesity affect your child’s physical development?
If your child is diagnosed as overweight or obese, your pediatrician will likely discuss the health concerns associated with carrying excess weight.
The main concerns are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea, all of which can impact your child’s health.
Along with this physical toll, being obese can also cause a child to experience puberty earlier than normal. For girls, this can impact not only their menstrual cycles but also their fertility later in life.
How does childhood obesity affect your child’s mental health?
Other potential concerns when it comes to your child’s weight aren’t visible ones: Overweight and obese children may be more likely to have low self-esteem, experience bullying from peers and develop eating disorders.
“There are definitely studies that show that being overweight or obese is associated with low self-esteem,” Chung explains. “What we don’t know is what came first: Did they have low self-esteem to start and find eating comforting or do they have low self-esteem because they are overweight?”
For these reasons, Chung and Simon avoid talking about appearances when discussing a patient’s weight to prevent shaming the patient or their parents. Instead, they keep the conversation focused on the child’s health and how making healthy lifestyle changes can have a positive impact.
How can you help your overweight child?
Obesity currently affects 13.7 million children in the United States. If your kid is one of them — or if you just want to help your family live healthier — there are small but effective changes you can make.
Encourage intuitive eating
This seems like an obvious one, but eating healthier is easier said than done. Rather than put your child on a restrictive diet — something that almost never works, Simon says — take small steps to encourage intuitive eating, the concept of making food choices that honor hunger and fullness without guilt.
“We need to take away the morality and judgement around food,” Simon says. “You want to make sure there are lots of good food choices available, but you also want those kids to have a healthy relationship with food.”
For example, if your child finishes their plate at dinner, recognizes they’re still hungry and asks for more, don’t hesitate to offer up seconds. Instead try to encourage well-balanced seconds that feature vegetables and fruit in addition to starch and protein. The idea is to help your child listen to their body, not to simply restrict their calories.
Don’t feel like you should suddenly deny snacks either. Saying something like ice cream is completely off-limits signals to your child that certain foods are taboo, potentially setting them up to have a difficult relationship with food in the future.
What you can do is encourage them to think about how often they’re eating unhealthy snacks in balance with healthy alternatives and also what portion sizes they’re enjoying in one sitting. For more tips on intuitive eating, ask your dietitian about healthy eating techniques and resources.
Offer healthy food options
“Some experts have shown that 25% of a child’s caloric intake comes from drinks and snacks, so that’s an area I focus on and talk about with parents,” Chung says.
She acknowledges that healthy eating is especially difficult in today’s society, where fast food and less-than-nutritious snacks are cheap and easily available just about everywhere. That’s why she encourages families to make bite-sized changes together.
Try to swap sugary sodas and juices for water (sparkling or still). Keep washed fruit at the ready so kids can easily grab a piece when they’re hungry for a snack. Or make it a goal to have a colorful plate of food to ensure there are a variety of fruit and vegetables at every meal.
“We really want families to give children a choice,” Chung says. “I encourage parents to include children in meal planning and cooking at home. This way children can pick the foods that they like and are more likely to enjoy preparing and eating them.”
Get active as a family
Turns out the family that exercises together, stays healthy together. Just as it can be tough for you to want to work out without a buddy to hold you accountable, it can be difficult for your kid to get active without a little encouragement.
“Asking a child to take it upon themselves to increase their physical activity is rarely successful,” Chung says.
If you’re able to, make a concerted effort to incorporate more exercise into your daily routine as a family. This can mean going for a walk after dinner every day or riding bikes around on weekends.
“Exercise can be really challenging for working families, but if you do it together as a family, it can be effective,” Chung says.
Cut down on screen time
Those tablets, TVs and cellphones can keep kids entertained while you try to tackle the mountain of chores you have to do around the house, but they’re not exactly great for promoting a healthy, active lifestyle.
The more time your kids spend watching TV — and snacking on empty calories while they do it — the less likely they are to be playing outside or getting a good night’s rest.
“We know that too little sleep is associated with childhood obesity, and if you’re obese, you’re more susceptible to having sleep problems,” Chung says. “It can be bidirectional.”
While it can feel like a losing battle, Chung recommends trying your best to limit the amount of screen time your child gets every day. For preschoolers, that’s no more than an hour of high-quality content per day. For older kids, it’s no more than two hours a day.
If you can already picture the tantrums and eye rolling that are about to ensue, try to at least set clear rules for when and where screens can be used. Tell your teens to power off their devices during meals, and make sure to keep the bedroom a screen-free zone to promote healthy sleep habits.
“Being overweight is not an individual problem,” Chung says. “It’s a societal problem that has to do with easy access to fast foods, busy lifestyles, sedentary lifestyles and, in general, more screen time. That’s why I approach all of these conversations about a child’s weight as an opportunity for the whole family to be healthier.”