The Best Ways to Address Obesity in Your Own Children

mom cooking with children. Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/OJO+/Getty Images

If your child is obese, you may feel at a loss as to how to handle the situation. After all, you want to help your child achieve a healthy weight but you also want to avoiding putting too much pressure on her or making her feel ashamed of her body. It’s a delicate dance but it can be performed gracefully and with love. For starters, it helps to be a good role model since kids tend to emulate their parents.

So if you consume nutritious, portion-controlled meals and exercise regularly, there’s a greater chance your kids will follow in your footsteps. Here are five other smart ways to address obesity in your children:

Raise the weight issue with your doctor. In a 2012 survey of 4,985 parents of overweight children between the ages of two and 15, researchers found that only 22 percent of parents with children whose body mass index (BMI) was in the 85th percentile or higher (the threshold at which a child is considered overweight) reported having been told by a doctor that their child was overweight. So the onus may be on you to broach the subject.

If you suspect your child is overweight or if the doctor tells you she is, ask what the goal is—to help your child lose weight or maintain her weight as she grows into her height? If the goal is to shed pounds, find out what the target weight is and what a safe weight-loss rate is for your child.

Also, solicit suggestions on dietary and physical activity changes to make. Some specific questions you may want to ask: Should I be concerned about her health right now? Since my child doesn’t like vegetables, what can I do to change that? How can I encourage my child to improve her eating and exercise habits without causing her to become preoccupied with her weight?

Shift the focus. As you introduce healthy lifestyle changes, keep the conversation centered on gaining health instead of losing weight, even if you’re trying to help your child drop some pounds. You might say, “I’m concerned that your weight may be affecting your health and I want you to have the longest, healthiest, happiest life possible so we’re going to make some changes.” As the lifestyle changes take root, make positive comments in kid-friendly language about improvements you’ve noticed—that your child seems to have much more energy on hikes or bike rides or that she runs around the bases more quickly now that she has slimmed down. Focus primarily on what your child’s body can do, rather than just how it looks.

Don’t put your child on a diet. As girls, in particular, head into their teen years, parents often encourage them to diet, according to research from the University of Minnesota. The trouble is, dieting is a quick-fix response to a long-term problem—and it can backfire by increasing the chances that an overweight child will develop an eating disorder. A better approach: Continue encouraging your tweens and teens to eat nutritious food and be physically active.  

Ban body bashing. Don’t criticize your own body or your child’s in front of her or else she may learn to internalize that negative voice.

The last thing you want to do, as a parent, is have your comments about body size and weight take a toll on your child’s self-esteem or other aspects of her wellbeing. But it can happen. In a study involving 455 female college students who were concerned about their body weight and shape, researchers from Stanford University found that 80 percent of the young women had experienced negative comments from family members about their weight, shape or eating; these negative comments contributed to their reaching their maximum childhood body size and to scoring higher on measures of emotional abuse and neglect.

Become more active as a family. If your child isn’t a natural athlete or interested in becoming one, meet her where she is by choosing physical activities that are likely to appeal to her. If she’s not interested in joining a soccer team or playing tennis, suggest going for a bike ride together after school a couple of times per week or jumping rope together or signing up for a martial arts class together. It’s never too early to start: A recent study found that physical activity levels in mothers and their four-year-old children are linked in terms of overall quantity and intensity (light vs. moderate-to-vigorous intensity). If you get moving more often and encourage your child to do it with you, you’ll both benefit. 

Emphasize that you’re going to make these lifestyle changes together then introduce them gradually so that everyone has a chance to adjust to shifts in the family’s eating and movement patterns along the way. There’s no reason to make sudden or extreme changes as if this were an emergency. It’s a lifestyle adjustment, a change of course onto a healthier path for the whole family, one that will naturally help with weight-control.


Bauer KW, Laska MN, Fulkerson JA, Neumark-Sztainer D. Longitudinal and secular trends in parental encouragement for healthy eating, physical activity, and dieting throughout the adolescent years. Journal of Adolescent Health, September 2011 [Accessed online September 25, 2014]; 49(3): 306-11.
Hesketh KR, Goodfellow L, Ekelund U, McMinn AM, Godfrey KM, Inskip HM, Cooper C, Harvey NC, van Sluijs AFM. Activity Levels in Mothers and Their Preschool Children. Pediatrics, published online March 24, 2014. Accessed online September 25, 2014.
Keery H, Eisenberg ME, Boutelle K, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M. Relationships between maternal and adolescent weight-related behaviors and concerns: the role of perception. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, July 2006 [Accessed online September 25, 2014]; 61(1): 105-11.  
Obesity Action Coalition. Preparing for the Discussion of Weight with Your Child’s Healthcare Provider. Accessed online September 25, 2014.
Perrin EM, Skinner AC, Steiner MJ. Parental Recall of Doctor Communication of Weight Status: National Trends From 1999 Through 2008. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 2012 [Accessed online September 25, 2014]; 166(4): 317-322.  
Taylor CB, Bryson S, Celio Doyle AA, Luce KH, Cunning D, Abascal LB, Rockwell R, Field AE, Striegel-Moore R, Winzelberg AJ, Wilfley DE. The adverse effect of negative comments about weight and shape from family and siblings on women at high risk for eating disorders. Pediatrics, August 2006 [Accessed online September 25, 2014]; 118(2) 731-8. 

Continue Reading