Should We Put Obese Kids On A Diet?

Help your kids feel great in their bodies by encouraging healthful exercise!

Help your kids feel great in their bodies by encouraging healthful exercise!  (Source: UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.)

I get calls from parents all the time interested in hiring me to help put their obese kids on a diet.  My approach has always been and continues to be encouraging family education and health changes.  Overweight and obese kids raise alarm bells.  It is as if we cannot notice our own problems so we over focus on our kids. Some parents are not interested in this “family first” approach even when they are overweight.  Rather, the child becomes the “identified patient” in the family where parental issues with food, eating and body weight roll onto the child.  What do other experts in the field recommend?

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian obesity researcher and physician writes the amazing Weighty Matters blog.  He wrote in 2010 about treating children for obesity and his concerns include damaging the child’s self-esteem and body image.  Imagine what it feels like for a child who needs an entire team of adult experts. Doctors and dietitians who are by their actions sending this message: “kid, you’re so fat you need a village to help you.”

My own observation working with kids under age 10 and shared by Dr. Freedhoff is they lack the sufficient emotional and cognitive developmental tool set to understand treatment and make independent changes.  Writes Dr. Freedhoff: “the cause of obese kids are parents who have enabled the behaviors that led their kids to need help in the first place.  The second big issue is the all-encompassing food environment in which we all live.”

Case in point:  ME.

As a young single mother of an overweight child, I had my own issues with food, eating and nourishment.  In particular, I loved to eat sweets, cool and creamy foods when under stress.  Oh, and I was under stress all the time! It was the 90’s and we were all obsessed with fat.  So, thinking I was a good mom worried about my kid’s weight, I overfed my son highly processed “fat free” foods that were loaded with sugar, artificial ingredients like dyes and “natural” flavors.  Things like Fruit Rollups, Juice Boxes, Snackwell’s Cookies.  From birth, my son was 99th percentile for weight and 25th percentile for height, which I now know might be due to my own poor eating habits while pregnant.  When my son was 5, I remarried an amazing man who had a history of healthy eating. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, we chose an alternative practitioner to help us (and my son) with his severe behavioral issues diagnosed as ADHD.  Her cornerstone of treatment were dietary changes:  more protein in the morning for breakfast versus a bowl of cereal and fat-free milk and juice, the elimination of all cow’s milk dairy products, artificial ingredients and dyes, and the wider reliance on whole, fresh foods.  Lots of plants.  Lots of real food. No cake or candy at school, no soda, no juice boxes.  And guess what?  I had to change too.  The family got on the plan together, we began building healthy breakfast, lunches and dinners and learning more about food and nourishment.  The interdisciplinary approach became a family team approach, and we worked on environmental issues (school birthday parties, time with friends) together.  While other little boys were going on Ritalin, our son was drinking homemade dairy free vegetarian protein smoothies.  His behavior transformed in front of our eyes and his excess weight melted away.  Here is what he is up to today.

Let’s face it – our experience is not usual.  Most adults have trouble with nutritional compliance and struggle with the change process required to lose weight.  It is hard work!

If you are worried about your kid’s weight, address your own weight first – or as a family together.  Here are some ideas for how to celebrate Childhood Obesity Awareness Month:

  • Talk with your child’s school about introducing or enhancing nutritional education. Focus on “energy balance” (calories in) and encourage them to spread this approach throughout the curriculum.
  • Demand that your schools post calories on menus.
  • Get rid of the highly processed garbage that schools make available, or worse yet, sell to raise money inside your child’s school.
  • Encourage mandatory cooking courses for kids which parents can attend.
  • Advocate for your children’s health by encouraging elected officials to ban all advertising targeting children.
  • Require and insist that restaurants post calories for all menu items, especially restaurants that claim to be healthy (are you listening, Flower Child??).
  • Encourage healthy activity, focusing on joy, not competition.
  • If your young adult child is in college, have them take my course, Sustainable Living and Mindful Eating (SWU 351).  Offered on the ground and online through Arizona State University, students are experiencing transformational growth in their relationship with food, eating, stress management and sustainability.  Or, buy the book and read it together as a family!

Let me know if I can help.  Your health, and your children’s future depend upon this investment of time.  Aren’t they worth it?  Aren’t you?