Health & Science

Childhood Obesity Is On the Rise—Try These 5 Simple Suggestions The Next Time You Worry About Your Child’s Weight

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Lots of parents worry about their child’s weight, either because we notice a sudden change ourselves or the doctor mentions it at a check-up. Many times there’s no real cause for major concern, but it’s also understandable for parents to worry. Recent data published by Psychology Today show that “One-fifth of all school-aged children in the United States are obese – triple the rate measured in the 1970s.”

Even if a child doesn’t suffer from obesity, it’s a sticky subject that can be hard to navigate. Luckily, some recent tips from experts who talked to The New York Times can help.

First, it’s important to remember that a parent’s main job at mealtime is to help their kids develop a healthy relationship with food—not to stress over every bite that goes into their mouths (or that they refuse to eat, as the case may be). Answering yes to some key questions can indicate that you’re on the right track:   

  • Do they eat a variety of healthy foods?
  • Do they seem to know when they’re full?
  • Are they fairly active?
  • Have they maintained a steady pace on the growth chart at each doctor’s visit? (Meaning, if they’re normally in the 90th percentile for height and weight, do they stay near that measure across check-ups? According to Keira Oseroff, an Atlanta-based psychotherapist and certified eating disorder specialist, whether kids trend near the top, the bottom, or stay right in the middle of the charts, steady growth is a sign they’re developing at the right pace for their body type.)  

If you notice a sudden change in any of these areas, it’s not necessarily cause for alarm. There are plenty of lifestyle changes (like sleep patterns and activity levels) that can affect weight fluctuations. The best thing to do is talk to your doctor.

If your child is at least 6, your doctor may measure their BMI, or body mass index. This is one of the first indicators that a child may be under- or overweight, but think of it as a starting point for conversation with your doctor, not an end result. Many health professionals say “BMI is an arbitrary and inaccurate measurement” in children, a fact that’s been discussed a lot recently in connection with Weight Watchers’ new weight loss app for kids.

Also keep in mind, being overweight doesn’t necessarily equate with being unhealthy, and genetics can play a part as well. If you and your child’s doctor decide their weight is a cause for concern though, there are a few simple things you can do.

Keep a variety of healthy food choices around

This is especially true at snacktime, when a lot of parents stumble. Fruit, cheese, and whole grain snacks are great choices that help keep hunger in check.

Stay in your lane. 

Your job is to provide food and foster a positive relationship with it, but it’s your child’s job to decide how much to eat. If you go too far into their lane by pushing them to eat more or less, it can lead to power struggles and picky eaters. 

Use the Traffic Light method. 

Teaching your kids about good nutrition by classifying foods in an easy-to-remember format – where foods are either red (eat only a few times a month), yellow (eat only once or twice a week) and green (eat every day) — is a research-proven way to help kids make healthy choices. 

Make playtime a priority. 

It doesn’t matter what activity your child likes, so long as they’re moving.

If, like many parents, you’ve noticed that playgrounds and group sports result in a lot of standing around while kids wait their turn, try to make backyard soccer games and family bike rides and hikes a regular thing in your house. Kids who participate in physical activities early on are much more likely to make it a lifetime habit. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to bond with your child while enjoying some fresh air and exercise yourself!

Go easy on yourself! 

Your anxiety (about your child’s weight, or about food in general) could rub off on your child, which only makes teaching healthy habits harder. We’re our children’s greatest role models, so how we talk about food and how we eat is likely to get noticed.

Whatever you do, try to focus less on individual meals and more on helping them develop a healthy relationship with food. That way, they can learn how to regulate hunger without you. It’s something that will serve them well for years to come.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.