Overweight Children

Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity

Obesity has become an increasing problem for children, so much so that it is now recognized as a childhood obesity epidemic.

Now, in addition to educational efforts to get parents to teach their children to eat well and exercise more, kids are even turning to adult obesity treatments. These include the use of weight control drugs, like Meridia, and going for procedures such as gastric banding and gastric bypass surgery.

As in adults, there is no quick and easy way for kids to lose weight though. Instead, many overweight kids will end up becoming overweight adults if they don't learn to eat healthy, get more active, and get to a healthy weight.

Weight Loss Goals

The first weight loss goal for getting kids to a more healthy weight should actually not be weight loss. Instead, the usual recommendation is for kids to just stop gaining weight. Then, as they get older and taller, they can 'grow into' their weight.

However, an even more realistic goal for some overweight children might be to just not gain weight so fast. For example, a 12-year-old boy should usually gain about 10 pounds a year during the early teen years. If he gains much more, say 15 to 20 pounds, then he will quickly become overweight. If he limits himself to the usual healthy weight gain for a teenager, then he might become less overweight and will at the very least, not become more overweight.

Although that doesn't sound like much, it is an important accomplishment and first goal.

If your child is very overweight, the next goal will usually be for him to stop gaining weight or to gain less weight each year. If necessary, your child could then move toward losing weight, especially if he is very overweight; in that case, he may need to restrict his calories somewhat under the guidance of a registered dietitian or your pediatrician.

Losing Weight

In general, to lose weight, you either have to decrease the amount of calories you are eating and drinking, exercise to burn more calories, or even better, do a combination of both. Remember that 1 pound of fat is equal to about 3500 calories, so you have to burn 3500 calories to lose a pound or eat an extra 3500 calories to gain a pound.

For example, if your child is at a steady weight, to lose 1 pound a week, he will either have to eat 500 fewer calories a day (equal to 3500 calories a week) or burn 500 extra calories a day by exercising. Another option would be to eat 250 fewer calories and burn 250 calories exercising.

To help him lose 1 pound in two weeks, you can decrease calories by 250 a day or encourage him to burn 250 extra calories a day.

What Is 250 calories?

Two hundred and fifty calories is about equal to a piece of cake, 4 cookies, 2 sodas, an hour of light bicycling or walking, or 30 minutes of playing soccer, roller blading, or jogging at 5 MPH. It is also almost the difference between eating a regular McDonald's cheeseburger (330 calories) and medium (450 calories) French fries instead of a Quarter Pounder (430 calories) and super-size (610 calories) French fries.

If your child is gaining half a pound a week, then cutting his diet by 250 calories a day will lead to no weight gain. Once he stays at a steady weight, you can cut back by another 250 calories a day to help him lose half a pound a week.

Although you don't need to count calories each and every day, doing it for a week or so might help you find where excess calories are coming from. If your child is gaining a half pound a week, for example, you might find that cutting out a bedtime snack of 250 calories might keep him from gaining more weight.

Preventing Obesity

Although trying to help overweight children lose weight is important, even more important may be trying to prevent them from becoming overweight in the first place. This too is not easy, but something that needs to be started in early childhood, especially if your child is at risk for becoming obese (for example, if his parents are overweight).

Targeting the behaviors that lead children to become overweight can be helpful in preventing your child from becoming overweight. These include unhealthy eating habits and a lack of physical activity and exercise.

Tips, both to prevent obesity and help your child lose weight:

  • Know what your child is eating and where his calories are coming from, encourage healthy foods, and avoid a lot of high-fat foods, high-calorie foods, and junk foods. Avoid frequent fast food meals.
  • Don't 'super size.' Large portion meals are a common contributor to overweight children.
  • Don't force younger children to 'clean their plates.' An important way to help children learn to eat healthy is for them to know that they can stop eating when they are full.
  • Limit the number of calories that your child drinks. For example, many kids drink too much juice and soda each day. Sticking to the usual recommended limits of 4 to 6 ounces of 100% fruit juice for children under age 6 years and only 8 to 12 ounces for older children can help limit excessive weight gain from calories in drinks.
  • Limit the amount of milk that younger children drink. Although drinking milk is important and it is a good source of calcium, too much milk can lead to your child becoming overweight. Obesity often starts in early childhood, with a common scenario being a child who drinks too much milk. Children usually only need about 16 to 24 ounces of milk each day.
  • Switch to low-fat milk when your child is two years old, or at 12 months if your child is already overweight or at risk for becoming overweight.
  • Encourage regular exercise and physical activity for your children each day. This may include going for walks as a family, playing outside, riding a bike, or participating in organized youth sports, like soccer and baseball. You can find some great ideas for being active as a family at About.com Family Fitness
  • Limit inactivity by setting strict limits on screen time, including watching television and playing computer and video games for no more than one or two hours each day.
  • Avoid allowing your children to eat while watching TV. Instead, limit meals to the dinner table.
  • Don't put too much of a focus on what your child eats. Remember not too restrict calories without the guidance of a health professional. Instead, offer a healthy diet with three healthy meals (don't skip meals, especially breakfast) and a few healthy snacks, and allow occasional treats. Talking to your child too much about calories, fat, and dieting can actually cause more harm than good, potentially leading to eating disorders.

And also important, be a good role model for your children by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Keep in mind that a healthy diet is usually low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat.

Getting Help for Overweight Children

Losing weight is not easy, and you may need to get extra help for your child. This will likely include your pediatrician, who can monitor your child's weight gain and loss every few months, but it might also include a registered dietitian, who can help you come up with a more healthy diet for your family.

If being overweight is affecting your child's mood or self-esteem, then a child psychologist might also be helpful.

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