Should Kids Diet?

My 10-year-old son is overweight. My husband says he’ll outgrow it, but I’m very concerned. Any advice? I don’t want to make him self-conscious about his body.

– October 5, 2004

Previously published 09/06/04

The nationwide epidemic of childhood obesity seems to be worse than it was only a short time ago, so your concern is timely. And obesity at an early age can certainly affect your son’s future health. Results of a recent study in Arkansas, believed to be representative of the United States as a whole, found that 40 percent of public schoolchildren are overweight and nearly one in four is obese. Another study found that nearly 50 percent of American eighth-graders are overweight or at risk of being overweight. The researchers, from Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, reported that about 40 percent of the children they studied had pre-diabetes and nearly half had low levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol (here, higher levels are desirable). Many had blood pressure that was above normal for their ages.

Interestingly, a third study, this one from England, found that parents are often unaware that their kids are overweight. Parents of about one third of the obese girls and one half of the obese boys in the study said that their kids’ weight was “about right.” (Among those parents who themselves were overweight or obese one third of the mothers and half the fathers said that their own weight was “about right.”) And some parents of kids whose weight was normal worried that the youngsters were underweight.

I sympathize with your concern that efforts to help your son achieve a healthier weight might make him self-conscious. But child health experts are now so concerned about the potential health effects of being overweight or obese (diabetes, heart disease and other serious medical consequences later in life) that they believe that identifying and helping overweight kids overrides any stigma that may attach. For every year that a child remains overweight, his or her chances of growing into an overweight adult increases.

Here are steps you can take to help your son form new health habits that should have a positive impact on his weight:

  • Eat meals together. This will give you more control over the food your son eats. Learn about differences between good and bad fats and good and bad carbohydrates. Minimize consumption of fast food and snack foods.
  • Consult “The Healthy Kitchen” – the book I wrote with Rosie Daley – for concise information on nutrition as well as easy recipes. Family mealtimes also give parents an opportunity to find out what their kids are worried about so they can address any stress that might underlie emotional eating.
  • Encourage physical activity. Schools have cut back on physical education classes and extracurricular sports programs so it’s now up to parents to make sure that their kids get daily exercise. Try to make this a family activity.
  • Curb screen time: Limit the time your son watches television, plays video games or sits at the computer.

Getting control of the childhood obesity epidemic is a national priority, and, for the parents of overweight kids, a very personal one. Best of luck.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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