Helping Your Child Who is Overweight
On this page:
- How can I tell if my child is overweight?
- Why should I be concerned?
- How can I help my child develop healthy habits?
- What can I do to improve my child’s eating habits?
- How can I help my child be more active?
- Where can I go for help?
- What should I look for in a weight-management program?
- How else can I help my child?
- What are clinical trials and what role do children play in research?
- What clinical trials are open?
As a parent or other caregiver, you can do a lot to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight. Staying active and consuming healthy foods and beverages are important for your child's well-being. You can take an active role in helping your child—and your whole family—learn habits that may improve health.
How can I tell if my child is overweight?
Being able to tell whether a child is overweight is not always easy. Children grow at different rates and at different times. Also, the amount of a child’s body fat changes with age and differs between girls and boys.
One way to tell if your child is overweight is to calculate his or her body mass index External link (BMI). BMI is a measure of body weight relative to height. The BMI calculator uses a formula that produces a score often used to tell whether a person is underweight, a normal weight, overweight, or obese. The BMI of children is age- and sex-specific and known as the “BMI-for-age.”
BMI-for-age uses growth charts created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors use these charts to track a child’s growth. The charts use a number called a percentile to show how your child's BMI compares with the BMI of other children. The main BMI categories for children and teens are
- healthy weight: 5th to 84th percentile
- overweight: 85th to 94th percentile
- obese: 95th percentile or higher
Why should I be concerned?
You should be concerned if your child has extra weight because weighing too much may increase the chances that your child will develop health problems now or later in life.
In the short run, for example, he or she may have breathing problems or joint pain, making it hard to keep up with friends. Some children may develop health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Some children also may experience teasing, bullying, depression NIH external link, or low self-esteem.
Children who are overweight are at higher risk of entering adulthood with too much weight. The chances of developing health problems such as heart disease NIH external link and certain types of cancer NIH external link are higher among adults with too much weight.
BMI is a screening tool and does not directly measure body fat or an individual child’s risk of health problems. If you are concerned about your child's weight, talk with your child’s doctor or other health care professional. He or she can check your child's overall health and growth over time and tell you if weight management may be helpful. Many children who are still growing in length don’t need to lose weight; they may need to decrease the amount of weight they gain while they grow taller. Don't put your child on a weight-loss diet unless your child’s doctor tells you to.
How can I help my child develop healthy habits?
You can play an important role in helping your child build healthy eating, drinking, physical activity, and sleep habits. For instance, teach your child about balancing the amount of food and beverages he or she eats and drinks with his or her amount of daily physical activity. Take your child grocery shopping and let him or her choose healthy foods and drinks, and help plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks. The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines External link explain the types of foods and beverages to include in a healthy eating plan.
Here are some other ways to help your child develop healthy habits:
- Be a good role model. Consume healthy foods and drinks, and choose active pastimes. Children are good learners, and they often copy what they see.
- Talk with your child about what it means to be healthy and how to make healthy decisions.
- Discuss how physical activities and certain foods and drinks may help their bodies get strong and stay healthy.
- Chat about how to make healthy choices about food, drinks, and activities at school, at friends’ houses, and at other places outside your home.
- Involve the whole family in building healthy eating, drinking, and physical activity habits. Everyone benefits, and your child who is overweight won’t feel singled out.
- Make sure you child gets enough sleep. While research about the relationship between sleep and weight is ongoing, some studies link excess weight to not enough sleep in children and adults.1 How much sleep your child needs External link (222 KB) depends on his or her age.
What can I do to improve my child’s eating habits?
Besides consuming fewer foods, drinks, and snacks that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt, you may get your child to eat healthier by offering these options more often:
- fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as brown rice
- lean meats, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, soy products, and eggs, instead of meat high in fat
- fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products or milk substitutes, such as soy beverages with added calcium and vitamin D, instead of whole milk or cream
- fruit and vegetable smoothies made with fat-free or low-fat yogurt, instead of milk shakes or ice cream
- water, fat-free, or low-fat milk, instead of soda and other drinks with added sugars
Try replacing milk shakes or ice cream with fruit and vegetable smoothies.
You also may help your child eat better by trying to
- Avoid serving large portions NIH external link, or the amount of food or drinks your child chooses for a meal or snack. Start with smaller amounts of food and let your child ask for more if he or she is still hungry. If your child chooses food or drinks from a package, container, or can, read the Nutrition Facts Label External link (PDF, 753 KB) to see what amount is equal to one serving. Match your child’s portion to the serving size listed on the label to avoid extra calories, fat, and sugar.
- Put healthy foods and drinks where they are easy to see and keep high-calorie foods and drinks out of sight—or don’t buy them at all.
- Eat fast food less often. If you do visit a fast-food restaurant, encourage your child to choose healthier options, such as sliced fruit instead of fries. Also, introduce your child to different foods, such as hummus with veggies.
- Try to sit down to family meals as often as possible, and have fewer meals “on the run.”
- Discourage eating in front of the television, computer, or other electronic device.
To help your child develop a healthy attitude toward food and eating:
- Don’t make your child clean his or her plate.
- Offer rewards other than food or drinks when encouraging your child to practice healthy habits. Promising dessert for eating vegetables sends a message that vegetables are less valuable than dessert.
Healthy snack ideas
To help your child eat less candy, cookies, and other unhealthy snacks, try these healthier snack options instead:
- air-popped popcorn without butter
- fresh, frozen, or fruit canned in natural juices, plain or with fat-free or low-fat yogurt
- fresh vegetables, such as baby carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, or cherry tomatoes
- low-sugar, whole-grain cereal with fat-free or low-fat milk, or a milk substitute with added calcium and vitamin D
How can I help my child be more active?
Try to make physical activity fun for your child. Children need about 60 minutes of physical activity a day, although the activity doesn't have to be all at once. Several short 10- or even 5-minute spurts of activity throughout the day are just as good. If your child is not used to being active, encourage him or her to start out slowly and build up to 60 minutes a day.
To encourage daily physical activity:
- Let your child choose a favorite activity to do regularly, such as climbing a jungle gym at the playground or joining a sports team or dance class.
- Help your child find simple, fun activities to do at home or on his or her own, such as playing tag, jumping rope, playing catch, shooting baskets, or riding a bike (wear a helmet).
- Limit time with the computer, television, cell phone, and other devices to 2 hours a day.
- Let your child and other family members plan active outings, such as a walk or hike to a favorite spot.
Where can I go for help?
If you have tried to change your family's eating, drinking, physical activity, and sleep habits and your child has not reached a healthy weight, ask your child’s health care professional about other options. He or she may be able to recommend a plan for healthy eating and physical activity, or refer you to a weight-management specialist, registered dietitian, or program. Your local hospital, a community health clinic, or health department also may offer weight-management programs for children and teens or information about where you can enroll in one.
What should I look for in a weight-management program?
When choosing a weight-management program for your child, look for a program that
- includes a variety of health care providers on staff, such as doctors, psychologists External link and registered dietitians.
- evaluates your child's weight, growth, and health before enrollment and throughout the program.
- adapts to your child’s specific age and abilities. Programs for elementary school-aged children should be different from those for teens.
- helps your family keep healthy eating, drinking, and physical activity habits after the program ends.
How else can I help my child?
You can help your child by being positive and supportive throughout any process or program you choose to help him or her achieve a healthy weight. Help your child set specific goals and track progress. Reward successes with praise and hugs.
Tell your child that he or she is loved, special, and important. Children's feelings about themselves are often based on how they think their parents and other caregivers feel about them.
Listen to your child's concerns about his or her weight. He or she needs support, understanding, and encouragement from caring adults.
What are clinical trials and what role do children play in research?
Clinical trials are research studies involving people of all ages. Clinical trials look at safe and effective new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. Researchers also use clinical trials to look at other aspects of care, such as improving quality of life. Research involving children helps scientists
- identify care that is best for a child
- find the best dose of medicines
- find treatments for conditions that only affect children
- treat conditions that behave differently in children
- understand how treatment affects a growing child’s body
Find out more about clinical trials and children NIH external link.
What clinical trials are open?
Clinical trials that are currently open and are recruiting can be viewed at www.ClinicalTrials.gov NIH external link.
If your child is overweight, there's lots you can do to help them become a healthy weight as they grow.
As a parent, it can sometimes be difficult to tell that your child is overweight. A child may not look particularly heavy to be overweight.
And because more children are becoming heavier at a younger age, we have become used to seeing bigger children.
Research shows children who achieve a healthy weight tend to be fitter, healthier, better able to learn, and more self-confident.
They're also less likely to have low self-esteem or be bullied. And they're much less likely to have health problems in later life.
As a parent, there's lots you can do to help your child become a healthier weight. Getting them to be more active and eat well is important.
Here's lots of practical advice to help you.
If your child has a medical condition, the advice in this article may not be relevant and you should check with a GP or hospital doctor first.
Steps for success
Here are 5 key ways you can help your child maintain a healthy weight:
- be a good role model
- encourage 60 minutes, and up to several hours, of physical activity a day
- keep to child-sized portions
- eat healthy meals, drinks and snacks
- less screen time and more sleep
Be a good role model
One way to instil good habits in your child is for you to be a good role model. Children learn by example.
You can encourage your child to be active and eat well by doing so yourself.
Set a good example by going for a walk or bike ride instead of watching TV or surfing the internet.
Playing in the park or swimming with your children shows them being active is fun, and it's a great way for you all to spend time together.
Any changes you make to your child's diet and lifestyle are much more likely to be accepted if the changes are small and involve the whole family.
Physical activity also may be more appealing to your child if you do something as a family.
Overweight children don't need to do more exercise than slimmer children. Their extra body weight means they'll naturally burn more calories for the same activity.
All children should aim to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day for good health, but it doesn't need to be all at once.
Several short 10-minute, or even 5-minute, bursts of activity throughout the day can be just as good as an hour-long stretch.
For younger children, it can take the form of active play, such as ball games, chasing games like "it" and "tag", riding a scooter, and using playground swings, climbing frames and see-saws.
For older children it could include riding a bike, skateboarding, walking to school, skipping, swimming, dancing and martial arts.
Walking or cycling short distances instead of using the car or bus is a great way to be active together as a family. And you'll save money, too.
Join Change4Life for free and your child will get their own personalised activity plan full of good ideas for getting moving.
Try to avoid feeding your child oversized portions. There's very little official guidance on precisely how much food children require, so you'll need to use your own judgement.
A good rule of thumb is to start meals with small servings and let your child ask for more if they're still hungry.
Try not to make your child finish everything on the plate or eat more than they want to.
And avoid using adult-size plates for younger children as it encourages them to eat oversized portions.
It may also help if you encourage your child to eat slowly and have set mealtimes. You can use mealtimes as an opportunity to catch up on what's happened during the day.
Explain to your child how to get the balance of their diet right using the Eatwell Guide. It shows how much they should eat from each food group.
Read more about what counts as a balanced diet.
Knowing the calorie content of foods can be useful.
Eat healthy meals
Children, just like adults, should aim to eat 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables every day. They're a great source of fibre and vitamins and minerals.
Getting 5 A Day shouldn't be too difficult. Almost all fruit and vegetables count towards your child's 5 A Day, including fresh, tinned, frozen and dried.
Juices, smoothies, beans and pulses also count.
Be aware that unsweetened 100% fruit juice, vegetable juice and smoothies can only ever count as a maximum of 1 portion of their 5 A Day.
For example, if they have 2 glasses of fruit juice and a smoothie in 1 day, that still only counts as 1 portion.
Their combined total of drinks from fruit juice, vegetable juice and smoothies shouldn't be more than 150ml a day, which is a small glass.
For example, if they have 150ml of orange juice and a 150ml smoothie in 1 day, they'll have exceeded the recommendation by 150ml.
When fruit is blended or juiced, it releases the sugars, which increases the risk of tooth decay. So it's best to drink fruit juice or smoothies at mealtimes.
Discourage your child from having sugary or high-fat foods like sweets, cakes, biscuits, some sugary cereals, and sugar-sweetened soft and fizzy drinks. These foods and drinks tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients.
Aim for your child to get most of their calories from healthier foods like fruit and vegetables, and starchy foods like bread, potatoes, pasta and rice (preferably wholemeal). And switch sweetened soft drinks for water.
Swap high-fat foods for these healthier alternatives.
Get ideas for sugar swaps when you shop and healthier swaps for breakfast, snacks and puddings.
Less screen time and more sleep
Alongside the advice to get them moving more is the need to reduce the time they spend sitting or lying down in the day.
Help your children avoid sitting and lying around too much, as this makes them more likely to put on weight.
Limit the time they spend on inactive pastimes like watching TV, playing video games and playing on electronic devices.
There's no hard and fast advice on how much is too much, but experts advise that children should watch no more than 2 hours of television each day.
And remove all screens (including mobile phones) from their bedroom at night.
It also helps children stay trim if they sleep well. It's been shown that children who don't have the recommended amount of sleep are more likely to be overweight.
The less children sleep, the greater the risk of them becoming obese. Lack of sleep can also affect their mood and behaviour.
If your child has a medical condition, the advice in this article may not be relevant and you should check with a GP or hospital doctor first.
Dieting for Children
It is difficult in the world we live in to watch as so many children are literally overburdening their bodies at such young ages by being overweight. These children simply cannot run, jump, and play with the other children because their bodies simply will not allow them to do so. For these children, dieting is almost a necessity despite our best efforts to insulate them from the self-esteem issues that often accompany obesity.
If you have a child that is well outside the normal weight range for his or her age you are the one who must make the efforts and take the necessary steps to insure they shed those pounds in order to live a life that is as close to normal as possible. The first thing you need to do however is consult with your child's doctor about the best possible course of action that will also safeguard the health of your child.
Put quite frankly however, if you do not take the efforts to assist your child in shedding those pounds you are placing the health of your child at risk. We do not let our children play in the street, we don't let them run with knives, why on earth would we allow them to commit suicide by Twinkie? If you have a child that is overweight, the following tips should help you and them with their dieting.
First of all, do not make food a punishment or a reward. Food is part of the problem with your children and you do not need to use it against them. Instead, introduce them to healthy alternatives. Do not keep the junk in the house and do not let them purchase lunch at school. Pack their lunches for school so that you know what they are eating. If you don't give them junk food they cannot have it when at home and you can work to insure that they can't get their hands on junk food when they leave the house.
Incorporate healthy snacks into your families eating plan rather than junk food. Fresh fruit, cut up vegetables, nuts, and frozen yogurt are good healthy snacks for your kids. When in doubt consult the food pyramid but watch calories in the process. You want your children to eat a well balanced diet while eliminating junk food and sweets for the best result.
Cut out the juices and pop. This may be a huge ordeal in your house but the greatest gift you can offer your child is a deep and abiding appreciation for water. Water works to make their bellies feel full and keeps them hydrated for the added activities you should be introducing into their routines.
Have them take dance, take up a sport, or simply get out and run around the yard. The worst thing you can do is to allow your children to become comatose television, computer, or video game zombies. Get them out and get them active. This helps in two ways. First of all, they aren't eating if they are outside playing and having a good time. Second, they are burning calories as they play which is a huge bonus in the dieting process for your children.
As your child begins to take off the weight you should begin to notice a very profound difference in not only the way he or she carries his or herself but also in his or her interactions with others. Your child will experience restored and renewed self-confidence as the pounds come off and the teasing at school stops.
If you are at a complete loss as to how to help your child take the weight off there are camps that are designed specifically to deal with weight issues and building self-esteem in children ages 7-19. One of these camps may be just the answer you are looking for. Another thing to consider is to lead by example. If you don't eat the junk food, if you are active, and if you do not engage in emotional overeating your child will not be learning those behaviors from you or having them reinforced by you.