Weighing In: How Can I Help My Overweight Child

Patient Expert

Question: I am trying to find the right diet program for my 7-year-old granddaughter. She is overweight and I am worried about it. Can you give me any advice?

Heather: Childhood overweight is an increasing problem all over the world. it is particularly concerning because overweight children are very likely to become overweight adults. It can be very difficult for family members who want to help their overweight child adopt healthy lifestyle habits to achieve a healthy weight. However, weight loss programs are not generally recommended for children because they require adequate nutrients for proper growth and development. Instead of encouraging weight loss, encourage your granddaughter to eat healthy foods and be more physically active to stabilize her weight so that she can "grow into" it.

Weight can be a delicate issue, especially for young children who are still discovering their bodies and developing a sense of self. You do not want to promote unhealthy or disordered eating habits that she could carry into adolescence and even adulthood. And you don't want to create a sense of low self-esteem in your granddaughter, which can lead to other problems. Try to involve your family in creating an environment that encourages healthy eating and physical activity habits; this will not single out your granddaughter for being overweight and the whole family will benefit.

Fill your kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grain products, these are the foundation for a healthy diet. It is not realistic to expect your granddaughter to choose these types of foods over junk food, so stock the refrigerator with healthy snacks that the whole family can enjoy.

Children and adults alike consume a lot of empty calories from high calorie, high sugar drinks like regular soda, drink mixes and juice. Replace these types of beverages with low calorie, nutrient dense options like water and low-fat milk. If your family is resistant to this change, start by diluting these drinks with water to cut the calories and then gradually decrease the amount of the sugar drink while increasing the amount of water.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children get a total of 60 minutes of physical activity every day. This may seem like a daunting goal for your granddaughter if she has been relatively inactive up to this point. The good news is that this can be broken up into several shorter bouts of exercise. If your granddaughter is not used to being active, encourage her to start with what she can and work towards 60 minutes a day.

School sports teams, dance classes and other organized activities are a great way for kids to get in physical activity, but many overweight children are self conscious about their fitness levels. If your granddaughter is not interested in participating in these types of activities, help her find ones that she is comfortable doing.

Gym memberships, treadmills and other cardio workout equipment is generally not recommended for children because their bodies aren't ready for that type of activity. Instead encourage fun activities like jump rope, hopscotch, four square and bike rides. If there are other children in the family or neighborhood, suggest a game of tag or hide and go seek. These are fun ways for children to be active.

Remember that the entire family needs physical activity; so don't single out your granddaughter when encouraging exercise. Family-friendly activities like trips to the zoo, the park, mini golfing or museums are great ways to be physically active without really trying.

It is also important to realize that your granddaughter likely knows that she has a weight problem so listen to her if she expresses concerns about her weight. Overweight children need the support, understanding and encouragement of their family members.

And finally, tell your granddaughter that she is loved and is important to you. A child's self perception and self-esteem are strongly influenced by their parental figures feelings about them.