Helping your overweight child
Obesity and its related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, is a growing problem among the population. Particularly worrying is the increasing incidence of obesity in children. While a small minority of weight problems are associated with medical problems, the vast majority are related to poor diet and lack of exercise.
Factors most commonly associated with weight problems for young children including poor eating habits, overeating or bingeing; insufficient exercise; family history of weight problems; medical illness (endocrine, neurological problems) or medications (steroids, some psychiatric medications); stressful life events or changes (separations, divorce, moves, deaths, abuse); and low self-esteem, depression or other emotional problems.
Once you are sure your child does not have a physical problem that could be underlying his weight gain, you should act to change the type and reduce the number of calories he is eating daily, and to increase his activity level. Lasting weight loss, however, requires that your child is motivated and fully engaged in the project.
The following pointers may be of use.
• Make it a family issue, rather than focusing on one person.
• Plan mealtimes so you can make better food selections, rather than rushing a last-minute meal. It will give you the time to look at labels and reject foods that have a high fat content.
• Change eating habits by having regular mealtimes and encouraging your family to eat more slowly.
• Keep an eye on portions as eating quicker can mean eating more. It takes the brain a while to process what you are eating and to give you the signal that you have eaten enough.
• Increase physical activity. Excessive weight gain occurs when the body is taking in more calories than it is using. Calories are used up in exercise, therefore in addition to looking at what your child is eating you also need to look at his activity level. Children who have problems with their weight tend to be less fit and active than their peers. This can be a vicious cycle, as the less fit you feel, the less motivated you will be to try out physical activity. For many overweight children, PE class is a nightmare. Not only are they self-conscious about their appearance, they may also feel self-conscious about their performance.
So while all the advice suggests increasing physical activity, parents have to think this through carefully and choose activities with which their child is comfortable. Walking is a good start and can be done with all the family. A regular family walk can also provide an opportunity to spend some relaxed time together.
• Limit snacking. Look at the type and frequency of food your child eats throughout the day. Help your child limit his snacks and choose healthier food options.
• Take the spotlight off the overweight child and be sure siblings do not tease him about his weight. Be careful how you discuss these issues with him. Making this problem one for the family to deal with rather than just one individual will help. Nurture your child's strengths and positive qualities rather than just focusing on his weight problem.
• Be aware of the impact of your own behaviour. Parents are one of the major influences on children's behaviour and attitudes. Many parents struggle with weight problems and spend time discussing weight or body image with their friends and trying out a number of diets. All the while their children are watching, listening, and learning. Children form their attitudes towards body image, diet, and exercise based on what they see at home. It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect your child to change his behaviour if you continue to eat unhealthy food and do not exercise.
Helping your child deal with and overcome weight problems calls for sensitive parenting and a measured, gentle approach, with the aim of helping the child make long term adjustments to his eating and exercise pattern.
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