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Kids and weight issues: what can we do?

By Alice Bradley

Despite the fact that Henry eats only American cheese and yogurt, his weight remains average—neither too high nor too low. This is actually kind of amazing considering how much yogurt he can consume in one sitting, and how much he prefers playing with Legos to, say, moving. My friend Jennifer’s daughter, on the other hand, has similar food issues, and her weight, according to her pediatrician, is too high. With a BMI in the overweight range, she’s at risk for future obesity and all the health problems that accompany the condition—not to mention the social stigma of being overweight. Jennifer doesn’t know what to do. Unlike Henry, her daughter is already quite active; besides all the hours she spends in the playground, she’s usually enrolled in either a dance or a gym class. The only other piece of the puzzle is her diet, but that’s already a thorny issue. Is it a good idea to tell her daughter to watch what she eats—especially when she already eats so little?
Picky eaters are hardly the only kids facing weight issues these days. More children are dealing with weight problems, and they’re dealing with them at younger and younger ages. 14% of children ages 2-5 are overweight—a percentage that has doubled over the last two decades. More children over the age of 5 are dealing with what were once believed to be adult consequences of obesity, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. One ailment increasingly being seen in children is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a life-threatening ailment that can lead to liver failure or cancer. Only a couple of decades ago the disease was almost never seen in children; fatty liver disease was associated with alcoholism almost exclusively, to the point where patients who claimed not to drink were assumed to be in denial. It’s predicted that by 2020, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease will be the number one cause of liver transplants.
But why are so many children obese? A recent study has linked childhood obesity with prenatal exposure to pesticides. The study measured umbilical-cord levels of hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a fungicide, and found that those babies who had the highest levels of HCB were more than twice as likely to suffer from obesity later in their childhood. This research is fairly preliminary, however, and doesn’t take other factors, such as activity level, into account.
Speaking of activity levels, yet another study concluded that children typically get much less exercise than parents think. Parents who were questioned on their children’s exercise habits estimated that they were active for over two hours a day, but the real number was somewhere around twenty minutes. It’s not hard to see how our perception of our kid’s activity levels can differ from reality; after all, we don’t know how active they are at school, and they certainly wear us out.
Diet, of course, plays a huge role. But many parents simply don’t know enough or don’t have the resources to provide their children with enough nutritious, low-fat choices. (And school lunches are not, typically, the most stellar culinary offerings.) And if you emphasize diet and weight control with your young child, are you risking creating an eating disorder? This is the concern of some nutritionists, who believe that overemphasizing weight loss with your child is a mistake.
All of which leaves parents, more or less, at a loss as to what to do. The advice experts give is the standard stuff: make sure your children get plenty of exercise and encourage them to eat right. Easier said than done, and with most parents working full-time, it’s hard to keep track of what your kids are eating and how active they are.
So, my readers: what’s your take on childhood weight gain? Do you face this problem with your children, and if so, how are you dealing with it?


Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • bessie.viola

    September 12, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Ugh, this issue is one that I worry about often. I have a baby girl, and I’ve tried to give her the best start via breastfeeding. I worry constantly that I’m overfeeding her and setting her up for later problems. She is a happy, chubby baby – but it’s disturbing how many people have rushed to reassure me that “she’ll thin right out, don’t you worry” when we weren’t even discussing the topic.
    So I don’t know what the answer is. For us, the plan is family dinners, at the table, with lots of good healthy food and good snack options. We are trying to introduce her to lots of things early (she loves salsa!) in the hopes that she won’t be picky… but who knows? I’m pretty sure she’ll have her own ideas.
    Sorry for the book – love reading about Henry’s exploits on both sites!

  • Ariella

    September 12, 2008 at 11:01 am

    I don’t know, but if you figure it out, let me know. I was a normal toddler, but became a chunky kid who remained chunky until after high school. I am 5’6″ and weighed between 145 and 165 from around 16 – 21. Then I lost a bunch of weight, got down to 130, and stayed there for two years. It was the best two years of my life. I finally felt OK about what I looked like.
    Then I had a knee injury, my mother died unexpectedly, moved halfway across the country, and was unemployed for 10 months. I gained 65 lbs. I now weigh somewhere around 190. I am miserable. I know HOW to eat properly, but can’t seem to control myself with the sweets and am more sedentary than I’d like.
    I often think that if I hadn’t been overweight as a kid and adolescent, maybe I wouldn’t have these same weight issues now. If my parents had encouraged me to be more active then (ie, made it a habit), then I wouldn’t have issues with being active NOW. When I have kids of my own, I am really going to push physical activity with them and also not allow them to have very much refined sugar. Otherwise, I have no real answers.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    September 12, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Kids don’t move around nearly as much as they used to. They need more activity. They need less junk food. They need balanced diets. In other words, they need adults who will take the time to make sure they are living a healthy lifestyle, who are around to make sure that they can run around outside after school (rather than doing hours of homework right away), who have the time to prepare healthy meals and put them on the table. They need adults willing to take the time to take care of them.
    In other words, your statement “…with most parents working full-time, it’s hard to keep track of what your kids are eating and how active they are” should have given you pause. If we can’t make the time to make sure our own kids are eating healthy and getting enough physical movement in their day, who will?
    As far as your friend goes, tell her to limit the amounts of dairy products her daughter eats (I get fat if I eat more than minimal amounts of dairy, also) and to bribe her with those prepackaged snowpeas and baby carrots (i.e., you can’t have your yummy yogurt until you eat these 3 snowpeas). She needs to be trained to eat foods that are non-dairy, slowly and lovingly. Follow up the yogurt with fresh fruit. While I do understand the problem with picky eaters (believe me, I understand!), you have to keep trying and you have to make it just a teeny bit harder for them to be so picky. With time, her efforts will pay off.
    If she wants other ideas for her daughter, you can tell her to e-mail me.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    September 12, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Also, parents do kid themselves on how much exercise their children get. A structured gymnastics or ballet class once a week (especially at the beginning levels) is not nearly as much exercise as a child would get from an hour of running around outside playing tag or hide-and-seek or riding their bicycle. There is a lot of “stand around” time in these classes that cuts into the exercise benefits.
    My, I’m opinionated today!

  • Catherine

    September 12, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    This is really timely because I just launched a new Family Fitness site (linked here — I hope I am not being overly promotional).
    My kids are not overweight, but my daughter definitely has couch potato tendencies. With her the trick is to be active with her. She will almost always choose doing something physically active with me over watching TV.
    If kids are overweight, I think the entire family’s diet has to change — this keeps the child from being singled out, and chances are everyone in the family will benefit anyway.

  • Lacey Jane

    September 12, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    I grew up with 5 brothers and sisters and a neighborhood chalk full of kids of all ages. I was so very very lucky to do so. Every day after school we were told to do our homework. Then we would go outside with allll the other neighborhood kids and play. Then we’d eat dinner and then sometimes we’d go back outside. The problem is, it is less safe these days to just send your kids outside without your supervision. We rarely had adults outside with us for the whole time because they would get tired so much faster than we would. It is really sad that things have changed, and it’s not as easy to just wave your kids off to play outside. Unless you have a nice backyard… But restriction to just one backyard can get so boring!

  • RLJ

    September 12, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Oh man, it’s a tough one. I’ve got 2 boys and in a way, I’m kinda happy not to have girls because I do tend to get a bit obsessed about my own weight from time to time (even though I am what you yanks call a size 6 and I’m 170cm). I really don’t want my kids to pick up on it. (My mum has always been very overweight and on and off diets all her life; my father is skinny-malinky: it looks like I lucked out with his genes; but inherited the neurosis anyway.) It really makes me sad to see overweight kids; but I haven’t got a clue what the solution is. I do think diet plays a part BUT I don’t think you can start having discussions till your kids are old enough to understand and to participate in a “decision” to eat and exercise well. You can’t force cauliflower into a 5 year old; but you can reason with a 10 year old. Also, seems to me that as understanding increases, natural physical activity decreases as kids’ playground antics get consumed by homework and computers.
    I’d love to say kids learn from example and I think about most cases they do so it is important that kids see their parents exercising. But kids are just little people and they have their own issues and obsessions regardless.

  • susan allport

    September 13, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Thought you would be interested in this short omega-3 video:

  • Brandi

    September 13, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    As a child I was overweight and my mother was very concerned. So concerned in fact that I developed an eating disorder which I have been struggling with for nearly 20 years now.
    I am now 5 months pregnant with my first child, a boy. This is a miracle on many levels considering I did not ovulate for 10 years. Every day remains a struggle as I fight my desire for a healthy child with my intense fear and disgust regarding weight gain.
    I am a little relieved to be having a boy since they seem to have a relatively lower risk of developing an eating disorder than girls, although of course there are exceptions

  • kim

    September 13, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Catherine, I want to thank you for your answer to this one: exercise with her, put the whole family on a healthier diet, don’t single her out. That is awesome, and so caring and good. Luckily our girls don’t have any weight issues. I’m trying not to pass on my own insecurities, but my youngest (7) refused to wear shorts earlier this summer because her legs “looked fat” when she sat down. NO! We’ve done everything we can to reassure her without dwelling on it, but she did mention it several times. I’m trying to be nicer to myself so she’ll follow that example. Okay, I’m going to go get my girls to take the mommy out for a walk instead of sitting here at the computer!

  • Laura

    September 14, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Just consider this.. it’s proven now that fat does not automatically equal unhealthy. As long as our kids eat healthy and get exercise it shouldn’t matter their size. If you’re concerned it could be something other than that, go to the dr and rule out thyroid and other problems. If nothing is found, just enjoy your kid(s) and teach them that people come in all shapes and sizes and that the goal isn’t thin, but HEALTHY.

  • Rachel C

    September 15, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    I am getting my Master’s in nutrition science and I worked for a year teaching healthy eating classes to overweight children and their families. I am 5’10” and I weigh 150 pounds…I frequently had children in my classes who weighed more than I do. 10 year olds weighing 180 pounds, 13-14 year olds weighing over 200 pounds! I couldn’t believe it.
    A couple things: do not limit dairy! lots of essential nutrients for growth and it comes in non-fat too! Don’t bribe your kids with vegetables, teach them that these are the foods our bodies need to be healthy. If you bribe them they will only think “okay I have to eat this so I can get the good stuff.” We eat to fuel our bodies and the better fuel we use, the better we feel. Don’t buy crap you don’t want your kids to eat. It sounds so simple, but if you stock your cupboard with cookies or snacks that are high in fat, your kids have access to it! Like Catherine said, it has to be the whole family eating healthfully for it to work.
    I think that the same issue with working full-time and not knowing how much exercise our kids are getting applies to the food they’re eating as well. If you only see your kid in the morning and at night, that could be 10 hours where you have no idea what they are eating!
    Also, from the struggling graduate student prespective, fruits and veggies are expensive! Your dollar doesn’t go as far when you are shopping in the produce section as when you are at the drive-thru ordering off the dollar menu. Right now it seems like the world is conspiring against us to make us all obese!

  • Mama Meg

    September 17, 2008 at 8:51 am

    My son’s only 2, but we are already trying to teach him by example. This means my husband and I are changing our diet now and becoming more active. If my son sees us sitting in front of the computer for hours every day instead of going outside, it’s going to be difficult for him to believe that exercise is actually necessary and fun.
    In my struggle with weight loss, I have found that a pedometer is a helpful tool. It is an inexpensive little device that clips to your waistband and keeps track of how many steps you take. The experts say an adult should take 10,000 steps (about 5 miles, I believe) every day for good health. I don’t always reach that goal, but just knowing that it’s there makes me want to get up and take more steps. Any time I’m up walking around is time that I’m not being a couch potato. I wonder if an older child could be convinced to wear a pedometer? Since I have no experience with kids older than 2, I really don’t know. It seems to me that there should be some way to turn it into a fun game though. Steps don’t exactly equate to exercise, but my mentality is that if they are taking steps, they are standing up, and that will lead to active play.
    Also, it would give you a way to gauge how active the kids are being, assuming they don’t just shake the heck out of the thing to increase the step counter…

  • Susan

    September 17, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    I remember running all around our neighborhood with my friends until dark every night. I also got lucky to have parents who are very obsessed with eating heathy. I never drink soda, that is another biggy that I see in kids, Way too much soda. I guess a combination of both excercise and a good diet is the best thing but since I have never had to deal with being overweight I really don’t know much about it. I have a very chubby 8 month old but my thinking is that babies are supposed to be chubby, I know I was. I won’t worry about it until he is older because I slimmed up very fast after I could walk and run.

  • Charly

    September 19, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    This is an interesting issue for me. My daughter is a beautiful, active, slim 10 year old. She seems to have no body issues at all, and the pediatrician has never had a concern for her.
    My boys, on the other hand, are a constant point of concern. My oldest son is 4. He is 37 inches tall, and weighs 30 lbs. My youngest son is 2. He is 34 inches tall, and weighs 33 lbs. The 4 year old is in the “less than 10th percentile” for his age, and the 2 year olf is in the 95th. They are both active, roughly the same amount, but the 4 year old is more prone to vegging on the couch with the TV on. Neither of them are incredibly picky eaters, but they both go through spurts where they won’t eat ANYTHING for a few days at a time. You put food in front of them, and they pick at it for a few minutes, then ask to be excused. Since they aren’t in school yet, I control exactly how much they eat, so I know they aren’t just snacking too much on those days.
    My point is, even within the same family, with identical activity and food preparation, body types can vary widely. Certainly genetics plays a part – my 4 year old takes after me, relatively small framed, long, lean muscle tone, where my youngest takes after his father, larger framed, super-dense bone structure, larger, heavier muscle tone. Sometimes I think we over-think these issues, and find problems where there really aren’t any. I think you should do your best to provide healthy choices for your kids, and let them take it from there.