One of our readers submitted this question, which we posed to local nutritionist, Courtney Armstrong.
“My child struggles a bit with his weight. I want to help, but don’t want him to feel as though I am criticizing him. What can I do?”
Addressing pediatric weight concerns can be a slippery slope. Overreacting by focusing too heavily on food, body size, and weight concerns can cause unnecessary anxiety and worry or potentially send the wrong message to a child, while ignoring a potential problem comes with risks as well. Pediatric obesity is in the national spotlight, championed by Michele Obama, while child and adolescent eating disorder diagnoses have continued to climb. What is a parent to do?
The best tools for tracking children’s growth are growth charts developed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC growth curves show that healthy children can and do grow on different growth curves. If you become concerned about your child’s weight, the first stop is your pediatrician’s office. Your pediatrician can help review your child’s individual growth charts with you so that you can get a clear picture on what is happening with your child’s development. If your child has always grown on the 85th percentile curve and continues to grow on this curve, it may be normal for his or her body and not a reason for concern. Anytime there is a drastic change in growth pattern, it is a red flag.
If your child is exhibiting signs of accelerated weight gain or difficulty staying on their growth curve, there are ways to help without sending the wrong message. Focus is typically on slowing weight gain, not weight loss, when it comes to weight management for children. Here are my favorite tips:
Focus on the family
Focusing on lifestyle changes for the whole family, for example, family walks at the beach on Saturday morning or adding in more vegetables at dinner will prevent your child from feeling singled out and promote overall health.
not weight loss
Promoting a healthy lifestyle and making choices for health instead of how it may affect your weight will also prevent unnecessary weight focus.
Health is holistic
I like to focus on a holistic view of health that revolves around a wellness wheel approach. Wellness wheels break health and wellness into several different categories (social, emotional, spiritual) including physical health. When we promote activities for our children that keep them healthy overall, we prevent becoming unbalanced in one particular area.
Avoid labeling food and negative body talk
Discussing food as “good food” and “bad food” or labeling bodies based on what they look like promotes unhealthy views of food and body image. It’s important instead to focus on balance, variety and flexibility with food choices, while teaching personal responsibility for making food choices. Some foods may have health benefits to eating them, for example, spinach. But we can get too much of anything. Adequate nutrition is more about balance than perfection.
Define “fun foods” and set up a schedule that promotes balance
Another way to help your child begin to understand the idea of food choice is discussing foods as “all the time foods,” “sometimes foods,” and “fun foods.” While we want to avoid labeling foods as “good food” or “bad food,” we do want to teach our children personal responsibility for making food choices. “Fun foods” are foods that we may eat rarely (such as once a week) or even less (at celebrations). It’s ok to discuss “fun foods” and foods that we eat in moderation with your child. Sometimes, it’s helpful to focus on what other foods may do for the body in conjunction with the “fun food.” For example, saying something like “It’s ok to have a fun food like a doughnut for breakfast today, but let’s pair it with some milk. Milk is high in protein and calcium, so it helps our bones and muscles grow strong!”
Involve children in
grocery shopping and cooking
Getting your child interested in good nutrition can also affect how they view food and eating. Finding a recipe that you can make together or picking out a new breakfast option that is high in protein at the grocery store can shift the focus from weight to health.
activity your child enjoys
Developing a good relationship with physical activity early on is also important. Try to incorporate family activities if possible, like family tennis matches on Saturday morning or walks at the beach. It’s important to find activities that your child enjoys so that physical activity does not feel forced.
Never use food or physical
activity as a reward or punishment
It is important to keep food and exercise in its place. We want to promote choices that will grow into a lifestyle of wellness.
A Registered Dietitian
Nutritionist (RDN) can help navigate
It’s often difficult to promote health and wellness without overemphasizing weight and body shape, especially in our current culture. An RDN is someone that has completed an accredited program (didactic course work and clinical rotations) around food, nutrition, and exercise who can help guide your family during this time. He or she can work either with you, you and your child, or with your entire family to help empower your family on a path of wellness. It’s important to find an RDN that is sensitive to child and adolescent nutrition needs to help navigate the journey.
Teach your child to honor his or her hunger and fullness cues
Never encourage your child to be a member of the “clean plate” club. As a parent, you set the schedule for eating (three meals and 1-3 snacks) and you also provide the food choices (variety of foods). Your child, however, decides if and how much to eat. This doesn’t mean he or she gets to skip the broccoli and add something else instead, but it also means that you will not insist that all food is eaten.
Courtney Armstrong is a Registered Dietitian and experienced nutrition counselor. For more information, contact Courtney at firstname.lastname@example.org.