It’s a diagnosis parents never want to hear from the pediatrician, “Your child has obesity.” You may feel a series of emotions—fear, anxiety, and even some shame. You may also feel blame and wonder, “How did this happen?” Rather than dwell on your feelings, become proactive and figure out the best way to help your child.
What exactly did the doctor say?
It’s likely the doctor used a BMI chart to assess your child’s current weight. He may have provided you with a specific number, and he may have also indicated concern about central or abdominal obesity. He may have also shared results of blood tests that may be troubling, like an elevated blood sugar level or cholesterol level. He may have suggested that your child has developed high blood pressure.
Understanding the implications
These different pieces of information, though troubling, are likely reflective of the extra weight your child is carrying. The good news is that if you implement lifestyle changes, you can likely intercept further weight gain. You have the power to help your child to lose weight or hold him/her at this weight, allowing growth in height to catch up to the weight. The weight loss and other habit changes you implement can also help to limit risk factors for hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and other lifestyle-related issues.
The assessment phase
You need to make some quick and important decisions. Even if other family members may not have weight issues, the whole family benefits from healthier lifestyle choices. If there is familial obesity, then it goes without saying that this should be a family lifestyle plan that involves all members. Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for a dietitian or licensed nutritionist to help with the initial phases of dietary change. You may want to think about the kinds of sports or exercise programs your child would be willing to try. You may want to assess how many hours of the day your child is sedentary, how much quality sleep he/she is getting, and also take a hard look at how the whole family interacts with food and physical activity. Review some eating patterns and assess whether your kids eat when they are bored, sad, frustrated or anxious? Emotional eating can be contributing to weight gain.
Also consider if the child has gone through a shift in their life—a move to a different city, attending a new school, being bullied, being a child of divorce, etc. Any of these elements that could change a child’s life could also be contributing to their obesity. Along with getting their nutrition on track, it’s just as important to make sure their spirits and mental health are in the right place as well.
Initial dietary recommendations
Keeping a food journal with your child can give you a daily snapshot of calories, food quality, and how well your child is adjusting to the new dietary recommendations. It can also empower him/her to be a serious part of his/her therapy plan. Review some basic nutrition facts and guidelines to further understand the six food groups, portion sizes, and other important nutrition considerations.
Planning is one key to helping you to get control of the food situation at home. Your refrigerator and pantry should be stocked with healthy staples and fewer processed foods. Consider cooking most meals yourself, and bagging snacks and school lunches, so you control the ingredients. Involving your child and the whole family in menu selections can help to cut down on the typical food chaos found in many households, and make mealtimes pleasant and manageable. This is best accomplished with a “stepwise” rather than all or nothing approach.
Go for the team approach
If you’re in charge of shopping for food, consider allotting extra time to some supermarket visits so your child can participate. Label reading, learning about the amazing world of fruits and vegetables, choosing specific and limited treat choices can help him/her to make healthier choices. If you do go shopping alone, involve him/her (and family members) during the unpacking and preparation phase—assigning individuals to wash produce, chop salads, marinate meat and fish with herbs, or helping to stock and organize the refrigerator and pantry. Your kids should also help with brown bag lunch choices. Making selections and packing the bag the night before school will help you to avoid arguments in the morning.
Get the family up and moving
You can all benefit from exercise, so find activities that resonate with each of you. Write them on the calendar so they become part of your schedule. Model the behaviors you want your kids to emulate by watching less TV, limiting tech time, getting up and moving around after you’ve been sitting for a while. Create active weekends with walking adventures, playtime outdoors, and fun family hikes.
Let the journey take time
Helping a child to lose weight coupled with a family lifestyle change is a tall order and will likely have push back, unhappy moments, and loads of challenges. Be realistic with your goals, keep health professionals involved, and seek support when you need it. Your child did not become obese overnight and it will take time and commitment to reverse the disease. It may seem like a chore in the beginning, but you will soon find that these family activities and healthy eating throughout the household will create a much better (and fun!) lifestyle for you all.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”