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Talking to Your Kids About Weight

GirlsMadison, Wisconsin - Kids are always active and on the go, so they don’t have to worry about their weight, right? Well, maybe, but maybe not.

The reality is approximately 1 in 3 kids in the U.S. is overweight. But as a parent, how do you know if your child truly has a problem? And, more importantly, what do you do if there is?

“Fluctuations in weight are natural as children grow,” says Dr. Alexandra Adams, Family Medicine physician at the UW Health Pediatric Fitness Clinic. “However, if your child is over the 85th percentile for body mass index or BMI, the reality is he or she is probably not going to grow out of it.”

Weight issues can occur at any age, even as toddlers. But, if you’re at a well-child check and the BMI or weight is high for your child’s age, that should be a call to action.

“But it’s important to stress -- it’s not the child’s fault,” comments Adams.

A multitude of factors can contribute to a child’s weight problem. And, while it should never be an issue of blame, it does take a commitment from everyone in the child’s life to try and do something about it, including parents and even the child’s physician.

“Less than 10 percent of parents will actually seek help for managing a child’s weight issue,” comments Adams.

That is, in part, because many parents may feel guilty, or may not understand the significance of the issue (the, “he’s young, he’ll grow out of that baby fat” line of thinking).

“It’s not a cosmetic problem,” stresses Adams. “Being overweight comes with many biochemical changes such as abnormal cholesterol levels, and high insulin levels indicating increased risk for type 2 diabetes. Being overweight or obese as a child not only can lead to increased risk of chronic diseases as an adult such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and arthritis, but also leads to health problems in children such as asthma, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, and even type 2 diabetes.”

Adams points out that the earlier families do something about a weight concern, the greater the chances they’ll be successful. It is much easier to prevent weight gain than to take weight off later, and habits are easier to change in children than in adolescents.

“Don’t wait until the child is in the 95th percentile for weight or BMI, or when they are in middle school and likely to suffer the social consequences such as bullying” says Adams.

You Know There’s an Issue, Now What?

Once you’ve recognized and acknowledged there’s an issue, it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with the child. How to have a conversation depends on the age of the child. A younger child, such as a seven year old, will have a much different perspective than even a 13 year old. And their issues may be different.

A 13-year-old may be getting teased by peers, feeling unhappy with his looks, or recognizing she can’t be active in ways other kids can. When a child brings those issues up, address them. Try asking how the teasing makes your child feel. Together, you can try to brainstorm solutions for how to respond, and equally important, talk about what the entire family can do together to help develop healthier habits. With younger children, they may not have felt any consequences of excess weight but it is important to work together as a family to address the issue.

“The conversation should really focus on how we as parents can help make sure our children are healthy, fit and exercising,” says Adams. “In reality, it’s not about weight or body size; it’s about living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”

Starting around age 12, some kids can become very excited about making changes themselves and can be motivated by things like positive lab test results or by increased fitness. Adams comments that those are often the kids who get excited about feeling better and are often successful at making changes. But, the majority of kids don’t understand the consequence of their actions or think about the future. So trying to encourage them to eat healthy now so they’ll be healthy adults isn’t going to do much.

“For those kids, you need to find out what their goals are,” says Adams. “When you find out the ‘hook’ it can make a significant difference.”

Maybe they want to be able to play sports with their friends, or fit into a particular dress. Whatever the motivation, if they can start to feel better about their body, they’ll start to want to make better choices in eating and being active.

Change Doesn’t Have to Be Overwhelming

Implementing changes can be challenging, but Adams points out they don’t have to be overwhelming. Small changes can make a big difference.

“It’s critical you make changes as a family. Children model parents behaviors and need parental support. And there are some simple steps you can take,” she says.

A few ideas include:

  • Making your home a “sweetened beverage-free zone” -- no sports drinks/soda/artificial “juices”
  • Go for family walks after dinner
  • Eat in more than you eat out
  • Stick to the outer aisles of the grocery store (produce, dairy and meats)
  • Introduce your kids to new activities
  • Cut down on screen time to 2 hours or fewer per day

What interests your child may surprise you. For one patient, softball was the key. Another patient family tried nearly every organized sport, but it wasn’t until their son discovered Ultimate Frisbee that he began looking forward to physical activity. Try and try again.

Working as a family to create a healthy environment will help kids learn skills and habits that will last them a lifetime. And, it can all start with a conversation. UW Health’s Pediatric Fitness Clinic cares for children from 5 to 18 years of age who are interested in developing healthier habits for life. If you are interested in a comprehensive evaluation and in making a plan to help your child and family become healthier, contact the UW Pediatric Fitness Clinic (608) 263-8850 for an appointment.


Date Published: 05/24/2012