What you can do if your child is overweight?

As adults we all know how hard it can be to keep it shape.

We have access to an abundance of easily obtainable, energy dense food available everywhere and many of us are too time poor to exercise.

We are eating out more than ever before, and we're increasingly reliant on packaged meals or take-away foods when too tired or busy to cook.

The portion sizes of foods and drinks have increased (who actually picks the smaller sized coffee or chips anymore?) and with each decade the pattern for many adults is that weight or body fat levels tend to increase over time.

So how does this impact our children?

Like us, our children are also eating more energy dense foods and moving their bodies less.

More children then ever before are not only becoming overweight and obese at younger ages, but worryingly, adult lifestyle related diseases such as high blood pressure and insulin resistance or high cholesterol is now being diagnosed in children.

If you suspect that your child is overweight or obese and it concerns you, then this blog is going to give you some practical tips on how to reduce the calorie density in your child’s diet to help them 'grow into their bodies' without dieting. 

Important

It’s really important that children and teenagers don’t diet or are put on diets (unless under medical supervision), because they are still growing.

However, there are some ways to reduce the calorie density of their diet by helping them make healthier food choices.

How do you know if your child is overweight?

Visually you might be able to see if your child looks overweight or they might be wearing a clothes size that is a lot bigger then what they should be for their age perhaps.

However, the best person to determine whether your child is overweight is your child's doctor. 

To determine this your doctor will measure your child's weight and height and compute their ''BMI,'' or body mass index, to compare this value to standard values.

The problem with being overweight as child

Many children today who are overweight are already showing signs of previous adult type conditions associated with being overweight and obese including high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and metabolic conditions. This could be setting them up for a life time of poor health. 

Then there is the psychological or mental health impact that being overweight may have on a child. It can affect their confidence and self-esteem and they may struggle socially if their weight or appearance bothers them or if they are bullied in some way related to how they look. 

Children who are overweight or obese in many cases will go on to become overweight and obese adults.

So, what can you do?

If you are concerned about your children’s weight then get them assessed by a doctor.

In the meantime, here are some of my tips to help reduce the calorie density of their diet and transition them to healthier eating.

I firmly believe in educating children about healthy food so that they know how to make healthy choices.

But I also believe in a balanced approach 90% healthy foods and 10% room for some treats. 

Breakfast

Many kids are eating sugary breakfast cereals, toast with sweetened spreads (jam, Nutella, honey) and fruit juices for breakfast. This can add up to a lot of sugary calories to start their day. 

This wouldn’t be a problem if they were walking or cycling to school and then were very active leading up to lunchtime. But many children are now being driven to school and spend most of the morning sitting down learning.

They don’t need a lot of carb and sugar if they are sedentary.

So, some better choices for breakfast that are lower in carbs and sugars, higher in protein and more nutrient dense include:

  • An egg or two on wholemeal or multigrain toast with pure butter.
  • A smoothie with milk, yoghurt and berries/fruit – The Healthy Mummy makes a children’s protein powder.
  • Natural yoghurt with fresh fruit and oats.
  • Porridge using real oats (not the instant flavoured oats that are very high in sugar).
  • Wholemeal of multigrain toast with butter and vegemite or a nut butter (peanut, almond)
  • Milk or water instead of fruit juice.

Snacks

When it comes to snacks I believe a balanced approach works best with children.

Rather than cutting out all processed snacks, allow your children to have one or two a day. For example, a small chocolate bar in their lunch box, a small scoop of ice-cream after dinner for example – keep the portion sizes small). The rest of their meals and snacks try to stick to healthy foods.

Make sure you keep control of portion sizes. So, instead of giving children a large chocolate bar, give them a small one, the same with packets of chips or lollies, a small packet, a couple of lollies.

If your children are supersizing their foods – getting the large or maxi Slurpee from 7-eleven, the large popcorn and drink at the movies or the big Gulp bottomless soft drink at McDonalds, try and transition them to small portion sizes. This way they don’t feel like they are missing out, but they will be consuming far less calories and sugar.

Some of healthier snacks that are less calorie dense and more nutritious include:

  • Fresh fruit, chopped or whole.
  • Cut up cheese cubes or slices with wholegrain crackers.
  • Crackers or vegetable sticks with hummus or a dip.
  • Yoghurt – a full fat, good quality yoghurt.
  • Homemade popcorn (not the microwave packet ones with artificial ingredients and fake butter flavour).
  • Dark chocolate or a small plain chocolate bar. 
  • Smoothies with fruit, milk and yoghurt. 

Lunches

Keep lunches to wholegrain or wholemeal sandwiches, rolls or wraps.

Always include a piece of fruit in their lunchbox - apple, banana, berries, grapes or a mandarin.

Other healthy options for lunch boxes include yoghurt, nuts and dried fruit, wholegrain crackers and cheese, homemade muffins.

Ditch the fruit juice and encourage them to drink water if thirsty.

Include one or two portion-controlled treats in their lunch box, for example a small chocolate bar, a couple of lollies so they don't feel they are missing out. 

Afterschool snacks

Kids are starving when they come home from school.

I love putting together what I call a ‘mezze platter’ for my kids with a range of healthy ingredients on it that they can select themselves including chopped up fruit, cubed cheese, healthy crackers, nuts, veggie sticks and dip, fresh popcorn, pretzels and a glass of milk or some mineral water with a dash of lemon or lime.

Then once they’ve had their healthy food, they have something processed like a biscuit, cookie or icy-pole.

It’s always about balance and ensuring they fill themselves first with healthy food and then have something that is a treat.

Dinner

Dinner will depend on the family, but as an example, in our house we’re pretty traditional when it comes to dinner - meat and vegetables, a pasta dish, stir-fry or a curry.

We stick to take-away fortnightly – usually fish and chips and I prefer to prepare and cook our own meals. That way I know what has gone into them and can manage the portion sizes. It also saves us loads of money as we source our food mainly from Aldi and of course the Queen Victoria Market.

When we’re busy instead of turning to pre-cooked packaged meals or takeaway – we’ll do eggs on toast for dinner, an omelette, make a pizza on pita breads or the kids will eat a bowl of baked beans.

Depending on your choices at dinner you could aim for more protein type dinners with vegetables on the side rather than ready made, packaged or take-way. This way your kids will be eating healthier at dinner. 

Hydration

As with adults, I firmly believe the best way to stay hydrated is to just drink water. The same applies to children.

This is probably one of the best ways to reduce excess calories and sugar in your child’s diet – cut out all the soft drink, fruit juice, energy drinks. flavoured milks and ask them to drink water when thirsty.

My kids will occasionally have a can of soft drink or in summer we freeze the square juice boxes for a refreshing icy-pole after school, but they know that water or a glass of milk is the best choice.

Activity

Some kids are going to really enjoy sports or more active pursuits, and this is a great way to keep them active and moving.

However, some kids (like mine) prefer more sedentary activities like sitting on the couch gaming.

For us, as a family with none sporty kids we try and do something active together, whether it is walk in the evening, a family bike ride, taking them to a park, walking around the zoo for a few hours or going to the beach digging in the sand or making sand castles.

But again, as with adults, you can’t out train or out exercise a bad diet, so if you can educate and encourage your kids to make healthier choices this will make a huge difference to the amount of calories they consume and their food choices leading them towards a healthy body weight and good overall health (both physical and mental) as they move into adulthood.

Go easy on yourself

Being a parent is hard enough without fighting with kids about food and of course there will be children that refuse to eat anything green or drink water only and who can be very difficult in general when it comes to food (I have one of those). 

Seek the help of your GP or a children's dietitian if you need some professional help. 

Be a good role model

Finally, as a parent, be a good role model, when children see mum and dad eating healthy and looking after their bodies, they much more likely to follow. 

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