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Preventing Obesity in Young Children
Do you have a young child whose weight or eating habits are out of control? Need real-world help “taming the cookie monster”? Here are some things that worked for our family.
Our daughter, now 14, was chubby from birth and happily thrived on breastmilk and formula for her first year. However, once he was fully weaned and eating only solids, he began to gain weight at an unhealthy rate. This continued into the next year until we started changing our daughter’s eating habits on the advice of her pediatrician. He was barely two years old, but his doctor felt strongly that we should make some changes before his weight became a lifelong problem. The goal was to prevent further weight gain until her height catches up with her weight without depriving her of nutrition or feeling like she’s missing out on the comforting aspects of food.
I’m happy to report that our daughter is now a slim, healthy teenager with good eating habits and no food issues, but learning to change our family’s eating behavior was a long process of trial and error. Since he was still mostly pre-verbal, discussing nutrition or reasoning with our toddler was not an option. We kept trying new things and learning over time what works for him. (These tips should also be helpful for older children, but are NOT intended to replace professional advice: be sure to check with your pediatrician before changing or restricting your child’s diet.)
Here are some important lessons we learned:
- Use the cooperation of ALL family members and caregivers.
- Chart your progress over time.
- Eat what your child eats
- Be creative in addressing your child’s individual needs.
- Don’t starve your child!
- Be patient and expect resistance and setbacks
Enlist the cooperation of ALL family members and caregivers.
The first step is to thoroughly explain your concerns and those of the pediatrician to the grandparents, child care workers, etc., pointing out that overweight children move more slowly, move less and therefore develop less self-confidence, they often have social difficulties at school. often become overweight adults.
Reassure them that you are following good nutritional practices, that your child is under the care of a competent pediatrician, and that you are taking care of meeting their psychological need for food in a more appropriate way.
Explain your child’s weight goals (eg, zero weight gain until weight catches up with height) and tell staff that your child should not be praised OR punished for food, but encouraged to eat slowly and move on to other activities when appropriate. -a large meal has been eaten.
Chart your progress over time
Once a month, weigh your child and measure his height, being careful not to express displeasure if his weight has increased. Instead, praise him by saying, “How proud you are of the way he’s grown.” Get a copy of your child’s growth chart (for weight and height) from your doctor and update it every month. This provides important feedback on whether your methods are working and you can adjust meals, activity levels, etc. accordingly. Never scold your child for overeating or being heavy: Our daughter went through the fattest part of her childhood completely unaware that she was any different, and eventually reached a healthy weight.
Eat what your baby eats
It takes dedication and discipline! You make it much, much worse if you choose for a child who eats differently than the rest of the family. A healthy family should work toward healthy lifelong eating habits, and it’s your job as a parent to make sure that happens. I know it’s HARD not to order pizza when you’re too tired to bake, but make it a treat once a month instead of a main meal.
Do the obvious things to reduce fat in your diet, including switching to skim milk, cutting back on butter, cheese and fried foods, and cutting out desserts altogether. For snacks, only fresh vegetables or fruits and an occasional treat (without fat!). Serve water as a drink with dinner (think of milk as a food, not a drink) and allow unlimited steamed or raw vegetables (no butter, no dip). As parents, you should decide how much of the main course your family should eat. Serve heavier dishes straight from the stove onto plates rather than piling them onto the table, so there’s less temptation to get seconds. Make sure the portions are big enough to satisfy a real hunger, but not too big.
If seconds are asked, ask your child to wait a few minutes for the food to settle, or until everyone else has finished, and then give him a smaller second serving and not anyone else a third, unless it’s a low-fat item. . Do the same for yourself and save all the Ben and Jerry’s booze for after the kid goes to bed.
Be creative in addressing your child’s individual needs
Sometimes waiting a few minutes between servings helped and our daughter realized she was full before gobbling down a full second’s worth of helpings, but more often than not, she felt ragged about leaving the food on her plate and stuffed herself to the point of stomach ache. just to finish what he started. (This happened even though we NEVER required him to “clean his plate” – misguided and outdated parenting policy!).
To help him let go of the food, we promised to keep it in the fridge for him, then wrap it in plastic wrap and let him see us put it away. It really seemed to do the trick: he got to be responsible for his food, but didn’t have to feel a sense of loss if it wasn’t eaten.
We did the same with candies. (People like to give candy to chubby kids!). We had a “candy jar” on top of the fridge where we put the hard candies we gave him (we dished out the chocolate after he went to bed). After dinner, to help him understand that “eating time” was over, he was allowed to choose one hard candy for dessert. It solved the between-meal whining about candy and ended the meal without serving a heavy dessert.
If your child has food quirks (and don’t we all?), think carefully about what need food can fill and try to better meet that need. Common needs are control, boredom, anxiety, anger and loneliness. Be creative and keep trying new things. The consistent message you should send is that his needs are important and you will help meet them without replacing food. Your child should always feel like they have enough to eat when they’re hungry, and if you don’t keep junk food in the house, they’ll learn to eat healthy foods to feel full.
Don’t starve your child!
This seems obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Even the chubbiest kids are hungry and need to eat to keep their energy levels up. Regularly scheduled low-fat mini-snacks between meals can help with this. The worst thing you can do (in my opinion) is to make food such a topic that it becomes an unpleasant weapon of control. Your child should always feel that they are in charge of what they eat and it is your job to help them learn the best eating habits possible.
If the child asks for food, always offer something from the “off-limits” list: a steamed or raw vegetable, or occasionally fruit, unless it is clearly NOT a good time for a snack (right before bed or a few moments before a meal is served). .
Consistently try to replace your child’s need for comfort food with an activity he enjoys: Say, “Let’s read that new library book together first!” and offer snacks AFTER the activity. In this way, you can gradually learn to recognize when your child is actually hungry and when they have other needs, such as tiredness, boredom, fear, sadness or simply a desire for attention. Gradually, he also learns to differentiate and slowly stops using food as his first “need filling” strategy.
By consistently offering only healthy foods in reasonable amounts, allowing seconds from heavier foods, and always having an unlimited supply of foods available, your child maintains a high degree of control. He can decide how much to eat “unlimited” and doesn’t keep hearing “NO” when he asks for more. (“You’re already on the chili for seconds, honey, but you’ve got more carrots than you want”).
Allowing snacks on demand eliminates the possibility of anxiety about not being able to eat something when your child IS hungry. If you leave the snack for a few minutes to read or play with your child, you send the message that food is always available, but it’s not really an urgent problem and may be a better way to comfort yourself in the meantime.
Be patient and expect resistance and setbacks
Changing a family’s eating habits can be difficult, especially if food has been used as a source of family comfort or entertainment (and sometimes it is even in the most perfect families!). Expect your overweight child and other family members to resist dietary changes, especially older children who have had a longer history of junk food. Be strong in knowing that you are doing the best you can for your family, and even if it doesn’t always go smoothly, you will KEEP TRYING. Don’t get discouraged or feel like a failure if your child gains weight or starts to “sneak food”. It doesn’t reflect your value as a parent, it just shows how difficult this problem can be. If a family crisis or a change in routine (i.e. vacation) throws you back into bad habits, start over. It is a PROCESS and the best gift you can give your child.
Some useful resources
American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org)
NIDDK: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.
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