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To your child’s health: Dieting for overweight children

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My 10-year-old son is very overweight, partially due to some unhealthy eating habits, and also because he isn’t very active. Given his family history — my spouse has struggled with weight issues also — I’m concerned that this will become a lifelong health problem. I know it’s important that my son lose weight, but while there are plenty of options available for adults who wish to drop some pounds, I’ve heard far less about how diets work best for children. Can you give me some tips?

Currently, about one in three American children is overweight, so helping an overweight child manage his weight is a challenging, yet crucial, task facing many parents today. Having a healthy body weight is important at any age, but overweight adults and overweight children who are dieting often have very different reasons for doing so, and keeping children motivated in a weight-loss plan can be especially difficult. Unfortunately, there are still no quick and easy ways to lose weight and keep it off, but it’s very good that you’ve become concerned about your son’s health issue early in his life, and plan to help him do something about it.

As you seem to recognize, it’s important that your son exercises on a regular basis, whether that exercise takes the form of a team sport, a recreational activity, or a simple 30 minutes of outside play. However, perhaps the most crucial aspect of helping your child lose weight is to evaluate his diet and eating habits, and make the necessary changes. Your son doesn’t need to starve to lose weight, but he has to eat the right amount of food — the average 10-year old boy needs to consume between 1,600 and 2,200 calories per day — and the calories he consumes must be as healthy as possible.

You probably already know that junk food, such as candy bars and sugary drinks like soda and juice, are bad for a child’s diet, and should be eliminated. However, overconsumption of high-carbohydrate foods that we don’t normally think of as “junk,” such as bread, bagels, white rice, potatoes, cereal, and corn can be almost as bad. Most starchy carbohydrates are digested into glucose — the same type of sugar you’ll find in abundance in Tootsie Rolls, molasses, and popsicles. High-glycemic meals can cause your son’s blood sugar to rapidly rise and then fall, leaving him hungrier than he was before his meal began. Look for opportunities to replace unhealthy high-carbohydrate meals and snacks with options that are richer in protein, such as nuts, eggs, and lean meats. Make sure, also, that he drinks plenty of water. Staying well-hydrated helps speed weight loss and reduces appetite.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping a child lose weight is making sure he stays motivated throughout. In the case of your son, it is crucial that he not feel like he is being punished as you make adjustments to his diet and exercise habits. Come up with goals and milestones for his diet and find ways to reward him, like a trip to the movies or a new toy that will motivate him as he passes each one.

Coping with a weight problem can be a major undertaking for a child, and losing weight doesn’t happen in a day. Remind your son why dietary and exercise changes are important and demonstrate the good eating and exercise habits in your own behavior. This can help ensure that he’s happier and healthier not just now, but through the rest of his life.

Updated 4:45 pm, July 9, 2018
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