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Childhood Obesity

Ten Tips For Parents to Prevent Obesity in Kids

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Updated June 01, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many parents are concerned about childhood obesity. Candy is a normal part of childhood, and is enjoyed as part of traditions such as Halloween, Easter and Christmas. And kids are drawn to burgers, chips and other junk foods. But these foods may contribute to childhood obesity and other problems. These tips will help parents to prevent childhood obesity by setting limits on candy-eating and junk food without depriving their kids.

Watch Their Weight

Chidhood obesity is on the rise, and research indicates it is a common problem among children and adults. Although some health conditions may contribute to obesity, for most people, obesity can be avoided by eating about the right amount of calories for your body's daily needs. There is no need to be obsessive about weight watching, but parents should know the healthy child weight range for your child's age and height, and the approximate number of calories they need each day. If you feel your child may be becoming overweight, talk with their family doctor or pediatrician about it, and follow their advice.

Join Your Kids in Eating at Regular Meal and Snack Times

If you and your child have a common understanding about when meals will be served, they will be less likely to nibble thoughtlessly. The government recommendations are that you should eat three meals and three additional snacks per day. This means that in a 12-14 hour timespan (during your child's waking hours), your child should not be going more than two or three hours without something to eat. Plan these meals and snacks to include all the necessary food groups. Parents who eat with their children help create a healthier approach to eating.

Offer Your Child a Range of Healthy Foods From an Early Age

Research shows that parents have a great influence on their child's developing tastes, and you can help your child to choose and enjoy healthy foods by offering a range of healthy foods from the preschool years. Healthy foods should include a range of fruits and vegetables, which are very important for complete nutrition. Children who enjoy healthy foods are also less likely to develop a taste for unhealthy combinations of sugar, fat and salt, which appear to be particularly common in food addiction. This in turn reduces their risk of childhood obesity, and even obesity in adulthood.

Don't Control or Restrict Food Intake

Although it is your responsibility as a parent to offer your child healthy food, and to monitor their food intake, beware of coming across as controlling or restrictive. Research shows that when parents are overly controlling of their children's food intake, the child can pick up on this, and become more focused on seeking out "palatable" high fat foods, which increase the risks of obesity and food addiction. This tendency can actually over-ride the child's interpretation of their body's natural internal cues, leading to preferences for high fat and energy dense foods. An excessively controlling attitude to food may also contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Keep Mealtimes Positive

Research shows that children make strong associations between certain types of foods and the set and setting in which they are eaten. Kids develop preferences for foods eaten in positive contexts, and will be put off foods eaten in negative contexts. If family mealtimes are stressful and you serve healthy meals, your child will develop a dislike for healthy foods, while conversely, if they have fun eating candy with their friends, they will develop a liking for candy. So keep mealtimes fun, and listen to your child about what will make family mealtimes enjoyable for them.

Eat Moderately in Front of Your Children

From an early age, kids want to eat the foods that their parents eat, and are particularly influenced by their mothers' eating habits. Overeating in front of your children may increase the risk of the children overeating as well. So keep your portions modest, and eat the kinds of foods you would like to see your kids eating.

Limit Your Kids' Juice Intake

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking juice is good for your kids, but it is often loaded with sugar. Several studies show that daily juice drinking is associated with obesity in kids, although these findings have not been replicated in all studies. And watch out for sugary soft drinks masquerading as fruit juice -- some contain no fruit at all, although they may have pictures of fruit all over the label. The word "flavor" as in "fruit flavor" is a dead giveaway that it isn't real fruit juice.

Keep Your Kids Active From an Early Age

Research shows that kids as young as 3 years old are vulnerable to weight gain and childhood obesity if they do not get enough activity. So get your kids active as early as possible. And the role modeling effects holds true for activity as well as eating -- active parents have active kids. The kids of two active parents are over five times as likely to be active than the kids of two sedentary parents. So keep yourself and your kids active for at least an hour a day.

Get Away From the Screen

TV, computers and video games all add to the risk of inactivity in both children and adults. Setting rules and limits on screen time is effective, yet many parents either don't set rules or don't enforce them. This also increases the risk of video game addiction. Don't let your child have a TV or computer in their bedroom, as this leads to increased screen time, which shouldn't be more than two hours per day in total.

A Healthy Diet -- But Not "Dieting"

The process of "dieting" is both psychologically and physically unhealthy, and more and more research is showing that dieting actually increases the likelihood of obesity, binge eating and other eating disorders. So focus on eating regular, healthy meals with your child, but not on promoting thinness as an ideal state of being.

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Sources

Fairburn, C. Overcoming Binge Eating New York: Guilford. 1995.

Kessler, D. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite Emmaus PA: Rodale. 2009.

Lindsay, A., Sussner, K., Kim, J. and Gortmaker, S. "The role of parents in preventing childhood obesity," The Future of Children 16:169-186. 2006.

Moore, S. "Confectionery consumption in childhood and adult violence," British Journal of Psychiatry 195:366-367. 2009.

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