Discussing weight, food and activity issues with your older child or teen

Below are some tips I’ve gathered from various experts and research studies regarding older kids and teens when it comes to activity, nutrition and weight. Hopefully some will help you out.

Love your child: You know that you still love your child in spite of unhealthy habits, but make sure your child knows this too – that you love her no matter what her weight or activity levels are.

Look for natural times to start the conversation: After a doctor’s checkup, you might say, “You heard the doctor say you’re gaining weight too quickly (or not getting enough exercise, or making good food choices, etc). Do you want to talk about what we can do to help?

Talk to health care professionals and let them help you: Nearly one-third of teenage girls are overweight or obese, and many of them are likely to become obese adults. The good news is that a full coverage program can help. A Kaiser Permanente study published in the journal Pediatrics, shows that teenage girls gained less weight, improved their body image, ate less fast food and had more family meals after participating in a six-month program that involved weekly peer meetings, consultations with primary-care providers and separate meetings for parents. This is an important study because one, it shows parents don’t have to handle these issues alone and two, it shows that more tactics are better than just one. The study didn’t look at teen boys, but it makes sense that these tactics will work for them too.

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Quick dos and don’ts when discussing food and exercise with your older child or teen

Discussing food and activity with older kids and teens is difficult on many levels. However, experts note that hard or not, you shouldn’t ignore it if your teen is overweight, eats poorly or is inactive. Acknowledging these issues is important because you do want your child to be healthy and also avoiding it may result in your child looking for unhealthy ways to lose weight.

Image © Marco Mayer

Are you worried about your older child or teen?

Maybe you’re already concerned about your child’s health. Then again, maybe you’re not sure what to look for. The issues below are red flags when it comes to child health. If your child has any of these red flags, you probably need to discuss your child’s health with his pediatrician and you also need to have some conversations with your child about food, exercise and weight….

  • Your child is overweight.
  • You have no idea what your child’s average weight should be.
  • You have no idea how much your child weighs.
  • Your older child or teen has a big belly – this is a major health red flag for kids and teens.
  • Your child is sitting and inactive most of the time or all of the time.
  • When your child is active, he can’t keep up with you or other kids.
  • Your child runs out of breath after minimal exercise.
  • Your child eats faster than everyone else at the table.
  • Your child usually or always takes second helpings at meals.
  • Your child skips meals.
  • Your child gets overly upset about food or activity issues.

For a full list of red flags read - signs your child may be overweight.

Maybe you feel uncomfortable discussing these issues, so you simply haven’t brought it up, and you’re not alone. These are hard topics to discuss. Still, just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Below are some ideas about how to bring up weight, food and exercise with older kids and teens when everyone is new to the conversation.

Quick dos and don’ts

  • Don’t make food and activity issues about looks (as in skinny looks good, fat looks bad).
  • Do clearly explain various tools kids and teens can use to make healthy choices such as portion sizes, nutrition labels, exercise guidelines.
  • Don’t reward weight loss or healthy choices like exercise. Offer support and compliments but don’t reward good habits, or for that matter, punish bad ones.
  • Do set healthy rules for the entire family. Don’t single kids out.
  • Don’t avoid food and activity issues just because your child is an average healthy weight. All kids deserve to know about proper food and exercise.
  • Do be patient with older kids and teens. If they haven’t been raised to make healthy food and activity choices, they need time to acclimate and change habits.
  • Don’t label kids different, such as “Lisa is the thin sister and Ruth is the chubby sister,” or ”Chris is so healthy and Jim just sits around like he’s lazy.” You shouldn’t label kids period, but weight labels can be especially damaging.


Why bring up healthy lifestyle choices with older kids and teens?

There are more overweight teens and older kids in the U.S. than ever before, and their numbers are growing. It’s not just about numbers on the scale either. Plenty of skinny or average sized older kids and teens have unhealthy eating and activity habits as well.

Later we’ll look at how you can start the food, weight and activity conversation with an older kid or teen, but first it’s important to look at why these conversations are failing to happen in the first place, and reasons why this is an important issue to bring up.

Why have the conversation?

Although it’s tough to bring up weight, food and activity with older kids and teens, it’s important that you find a way to do it. Not only do you want your child to be healthy, but research shows that kids also want to be fit and healthy and they need parent support to do so. Below are other reasons why you, as a parent, need to be proactive about this situation.

  • Current research shows that if we don’t change our eating and activity habits, more than one in five American children will be obese in 2020.
  • Since the 1970s, obesity rates have more than tripled among children aged 6–11.
  • 18% of teens (kids ages 12-18) in the United States are obese while another 15%+ are considered overweight or on their way to becoming overweight.
  • Many weight advocates feel that “healthy bodies at any size” should be on the agenda for America. While it’s true that weight does not dictate health, it’s also true that excess weight is really linked to countless health problems for kids and teens. In fact the most recent research shows that 23% of all overweight teens are prediabetic or diabetic, while 49% of overweight teens and 61% obese teens have one or more cardiovascular disease risk factors.
  • If you think food and exercise habits are hard to change in teens, imagine how it gets even harder to change your habits as you get older. Now, not later is the time to focus on changing habits.
  • Teens who try to lose weight alone, go about it incorrectly. Research shows that teens who realize they’re overweight or inactive, often try to lose weight or become active but use unhealthy tactics to reach their goals. Although older than younger kids, teens still need parent support in order to develop healthy habits correctly.
  • Older kids and teens, both those who are at a healthy weight and those who are not, don’t get enough activity. Screen time is king among kids these days and research shows most older kids and teens don’t even get the minimum amount of exercise or activity they need to stay healthy.

What’s holding parents back from discussing weight, activity and food issues?

Action is seriously lacking when it comes to changing eating and activity habits of older kids and teens. This happens for various reasons, such as…

Parent denial: Parent surveys and research show that many parents are in denial when it comes to overweight kids. Research shows 83% of parents say their kids are at the right weight or “Average” even if their child is clinically overweight. When it comes to their own kids, often parents think issues such as belly rolls, excess weight and a total lack of activity is perfectly normal.

Teens are in denial: Studies show that overweight teens seriously underestimate their weight problem. Research shows that many teens who are clinically overweight feel that they are actually at an ideal or decent weight. In this case, even if a parent isn’t in denial, it may be hard to reach out to a teen who thinks they’re perfectly healthy. Research shows that teen denial usually happens because many of a teens peers are overweight and inactive too – when being overweight and sitting all day is the norm it becomes harder to notice when there’s a problem.

Your child is not overweight: If your child is an average weight or even skinny, you may think conversations surrounding food, weight and exercise are moot points. However, all kids need support from parents in order to learn how to eat well and get enough activity, regardless of weight.

Lack of information: Research shows that doctors are reluctant to discuss weight with patients, including young patients. Plus, we live in a super-sized commercial world that pushes huge portions and screen time vs. healthy activities. Many parents simply don’t have the right tools at their disposal to deal with unhealthy eating and activity problems.

Guilt: Some parents feel guilty bringing up weight and food, especially if their own habits aren’t perfect. For example, it’s hard to tell a kid, “Hey, quit eating fast food and get active” if you’re eating fast food and not getting any exercise. This is a valid excuse, but it’s also a great chance to institute change across the board. In fact, most research shows that when it comes to unhealthy older kids and teens, whole family lifestyle changes work better than just focusing on the child.

No one wants to promote physical or emotional disorders: When it comes to discussing food and exercise with teens, many people jump to food disorders – for example, “I don’t want to bring up weight, because maybe my child will become anorexic.” It’s a fair conclusion, but not entirely reasonable because unhealthy eating habits and zero exercise are also serious health issues, just like eating disorders. If you don’t bring up weight and activity, you may have to discuss diabetes, heart disease and other tough health topics with your kid instead. Also, there are ways to talk to people about weight that don’t necessarily lead to eating disorders.

Teens may be more sensitive: Kids at any age can exhibit behaviors that make talking to them tough, but teens are at an age where discussing health topics is especially difficult. In fact, one teen survey showed that teens say it would be terrible and embarrassing to have to discuss weight issues with a parent. If teens don’t want to talk, it makes it that much harder to start the conversation.

It’s too hard: Talking about food, weight, exercise and other health issues can be hard for parents. In fact, surveys show that parents consider food and weight issues so difficult to bring up that they’d rather discuss drug use, smoking and sex with their kids. In many cases, parents avoid weight, food and activity issues simply because it’s easier than addressing them.

What can you do?

It is hard to discuss these issues with older kids and teens, so honestly my best advice is to start this conversation when your kids are young.

That said, plenty of parents do not start this conversation when their kids are young, which results in a “What do I do now” situation once kids are older. The most important thing to know is that it’s not too late now. If your kids are older or teenagers, it’s still very important to talk about weight, food and activity, even if it’s the first time you’ve done so.

Part of being a parent is making sure your kids have the tools and support they need to eat well and exercise for the rest of their life. Your kid deserve to know what calories are, how food portions work, how excess weight is linked to health problems and why an active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. It’s not the responsibility of your child’s school or her peers or anyone else to teach your child about healthy eating and activity – it’s your responsibility, no matter how difficult.

Coming up, we’ll look at some different ways you can start the healthy lifestyle conversation with older kids and teens.

Kids want to make healthy choices but parents aren’t helping

With news that kids across America are gaining more weight, I thought we should look at an interesting issue connected to the whole childhood obesity issue - the fact that kids don’t perceive that their parents are offering enough support surrounding weight, food and activity issues.

How parents ignore weight:

Current research shows that most parents underestimate the consequences of weight issues in their own kids, but even when parents may get the issue, they practice various denial techniques. It’s an odd situation, because you wouldn’t expect your child to manage his own vaccine schedule or plan dental visits and other health minded stuff, but when it comes to weight, many parents apparently do leave their kid to fend for themselves.

I’m sure you’ve met parents who sit and watch as their child has three helpings of ice cream or nine servings of tarter sauce yet says nothing. There are parent who ignore doctors who say their kids weigh too much and parents who tell an obviously overweight child that they look like they’re in great shape.

None of these behaviors are useful for kids because like it or not (and ignore it or not) weight is linked to health.

Not all of this can be blamed on parents of course. Obviously this is an extremely tough issue to discuss, even for adults. Telling parents that they should talk to their kids about weight is overwhelming for many – in fact, as I’ve pointed out before, research shows parents are more comfortable discussing drug use and sex with kids than weight.

On top of discomfort, many health care professionals also refuse to confront this issue and we lack vital parent education surrounding childhood health and especially weight in this country. Socially, we’ve also created a spiral problem, because more kids are overweight, which makes it seem more normal and okay. Overweight kids no longer look overweight when excess weight is the norm.

Consequences of ignoring the issue

Still, no matter the cause, many parents are in the dark about their child’s BMI, calorie intake or exercise levels, and there are consequences when parents refuse to discuss weight, diet and activity with kids.

A major consequence of ignoring this issue is that your child may assume he’s a healthy weight and may assume that he’s getting plenty of exercise. Some research shows that teens, especially teen girls, tend to think they’re underweight, even if they’re overweight and overestimate their activity levels.

Another consequence is that many kids aren’t in the dark about their weight, want help and don’t get it. Youth comments on weight loss forums show that while their choices about how to help themselves may not be perfect, many kids are aware that there’s a problem and they try tactics like dieting or excessive exercise that can be harmful without adult support.

Many kid say they’re unhappy about excess weight because it makes it hard to fit it, find clothes that fit or get a date. Other research shows that children as young as 7 years of age are unhappy if they’re overweight and may even try to lose weight without asking their parents for help, which puts them at an increased risk of developing eating problems.

Addressing the issue with kids in a non-scary way:

Actually, I think discussing weight with kids will always be a little nerve wracking, but if you consider how kids think, it may get easier to discuss. On the kid forums I mentioned, youth noted some common reasons that they overeat were, “addiction to food” and “boredom.” Kids said their top food triggers are candy, chocolate, ice cream, chips, cookies and cake, fast food and pizza and many noted that they wished their parents would stop buying these items.

Key issues kids tend to address on forums I visited included eating because they feel too much stress, eating to feel comfort, eating to numb themselves, eating because the food is there and simply eating because a parent doesn’t say no. Some kids noted they eat because, ”Junk food is like a best friend.

Almost all kids who left lengthy comments on weight loss forums eventually said that they felt they needed help to say no to treats and junk food. The likely candidate to help a child say no is a parent.

Although conversations about weight are always difficult and it’s super tempting to avoid them you should know that:

  • Most overweight kids (and even adults) won’t lose weight and get fit without some sort of support system in place.
  • Food topics are extremely confusing for everyone, so consider how confusing they must be for a child who doesn’t get parent support.
  • Learning how to eat healthily is an actual skill, as is learning how to get the proper amount of exercise or activity.
  • Weight isn’t an easy issue to hide. Everyone (I’m betting) is aware when they don’t look or feel their best. If you stay mum about these issues, your child may simply believe that weight and activity aren’t things you’re supposed to discuss, which perpetrates the current societal issue of ignoring weight and activity.
  • Not talking truthfully about weight means you’re leaving it up to your kids to decide what weight means – and most kids tend to connect weight with looks when in reality they should learn that weight is a health issue not a “looks” issue.

Start the conversation: 

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has some very good advice about childhood weight, which is “Don’t Talk, Do Something,” although I’d suggest both conversation and doing something, since kids at forums seemed to want their parents to speak up. This organization advises that you start making lifestyle changes as a family – make it easy for kids to eat smart and move often by, “Serving regular, balanced family meals and snacks, turning off televisions, video games and computers and looking for ways to spend fun, active time together.

It’s okay and normal to be nervous about discussing weight with your kids, but it’s not okay to avoid it. It’s tough to be a parent sometimes, but at the core, as the parent, you owe it to your kids to offer honest support and education about issues that affect their health such as drug, sex and yes, even weight and activity.

In general: Be honest, make sure you’re doing the bare minimum (at least) and discuss weight issues in a way that relates to health, not clothing size or status. Weight should not be about fitting in or looking cool in a swimsuit, but about feeling good and being healthy.

To gain more skills regarding how to talk to your kids about weight, without freaking everyone out, check out the following links:

How to be a proactive parent when it comes to nutrition and health issues

In my opinion, proactive parents, with regards to nutrition and health issues have three main traits in common:

  1. They’re aware – they get educated about food and activity issues.
  2. They’re involved – they discuss food and activity issues with their kids, know what their kids are eating and know if they’re exercising or not.
  3. They’re able to deal – they may feel uncomfortable discussing food, weight and activity, but they do it anyway because they want healthy kids. They also do not engage in denial behavior.

Get pumped to be a proactive parent with the tips below…

Before you can discuss food and activity issues with your kid, you need to know what you’re talking about. Get knowledgeable about the following topics so you can address them appropriately with your child or teen…

As you start having these conversation, take a close look at overall family habits. Is sitting in front of a screen the only way your family knows how to relax? Do you serve huge portions of food? Do you keep soda and chips stocked all the time? Do you eat fast food because it’s faster than cooking? Your home needs to be a healthy-minded place in order to raise healthy kids.

Remember the following:

You are in charge of groceries. Your child can’t snack on cookies and chips if you purchase healthy snacks. Your child won’t eat fast food if you don’t buy it for her.

You are in charge of activity. If you plan a family hike your child won’t be sitting. If you tell everyone, “It’s time to go play basketball” or “Take a walk” that’s what should happen.

You are the parent! This means YOU are in charge. Do not compromise healthy habits because your kid doesn’t like the idea of healthy habits – you’re the parent so make healthy choices and then make sure the family sticks to them.

Best Parent Actions

Be a good role model: If you’re going to start discussing food and activity, make sure your own choices are healthy so your child can see these healthy rules in action.

Let your child make choices: Allow older kids and teens choices, within reason. For example, before going to the grocers, ask your child for food requests, but tell him that the choices need to be healthy and nutritious for the most part. Allow your child one “junk food” choice BUT only one and only buy said junk food in a limited amount once per week. Once it’s gone for the week, it’s gone.

Create activity rules: Have your child make a list of active activities she likes, then make sure she’s doing some of them. You may want to insist on one sport team per semester at school or take a yoga class together. If your child can’t choose an activity on her own, remember that as the parent, you can decide for her. It’s not appropriate or healthy if you allow your child to be inactive all the time. Plus, sometimes kids don’t know what they’ll like. You may enroll your kid in soccer and they may not be thrilled at first, but might grow to love it.

Eat at home most of the time: Meals out are way heavier on calories than meals at home. Portions at restaurants are huge and inappropriate for kids and teens. For example, whenever my friend takes her son to dinner at Red Robin, the teen orders off the adult menu getting a burger, fries and float, plus ranch dip for the fries. This is a 2,452 calorie meal. WAY too many calories for one meal considering most teens only need about 1,600 to 2,500 calories per day. The average kids meal at a fast food joint is more than 800 calories. On the flip side, you can make a decent 400-500 calorie meal at home.

Don’t fall into the “relax” trap: Some parents know how frazzled the school system can make kids, so they rationalize that on weekends, after school and during the summer, their child, “Deserves to relax,” allowing unlimited time in front of the T.V and computer, just sitting. Don’t do this. School is stressful for kids, but rewarding one bad thing with another does not make a right. Just because your child or teen is stressed in school doesn’t mean they get to sit 100% of the time when not in school. If school is really that stressful, make a change.

Address school lunches: I know many kids who skip lunch because they hate the school food. I know others who eat pizza dipped in ranch each and every day. Find out what your child’s lunch habits look like and if they aren’t healthy, send a packed lunch to school instead.

Address the small things: I’ve met kids who play Wii Sports sitting down or eat 9 helpings of tarter sauce (1,424 calories). These are insane issues that while small, do need to be addressed. Making your child stand up to play Wii Sports is totally reasonable as is limiting toppings. Becoming good at making small healthy changes may help you get better at instituting bigger changes.

Don’t wimp out

If your child needs to start working on newer, healthier habits, make sure it happens. These are very tough issues, but being too scared to deal with them or avoiding the issues because you feel they’re too hard to address, aren’t acceptable options if you’re the parent. You want your child to be healthy. You do not want a child with diabetes, heart disease and other health issues that come along with being overweight, poor nutrition or a lack of activity.

Start creating new healthy family rules and really stick to them, such as…

  • Buy healthy groceries and cook at home.
  • Institute family walks and activity times and make them mandatory – no exceptions. It won’t kill your child to make him take a family walk. He may whine or complain at first, but again, this is your child’s health we’re talking about.
  • Quit buying soda.
  • Quit eating fast food.
  • Limit screen time.
  • Serve proper food portions.

When you waver back and fourth on healthy family rules, you only confuse your kid and make going healthy that much harder.

How to beat childhood obesity denial

Lately, we’ve been talking about weight denial. If you missed a post, get caught up below…

Why Beat Denial?

If you have an inkling that your child may be overweight or if a doctor has mentioned that your child is overweight, you could ignore it, but that’s not very wise. Health habits change with support not avoidance.

Weight, food and activity issues are taboo only because we make them so. It’s worth it to deal with denial issues, because…

Weight is a health concern: Considered how excess weight or lack of physical activity may harm your child, now and in the future. If you don’t believe that excess weight poses a health risk, you’re fooling yourself. Kids who weigh too much are at risk for many health problems. Even kids who are not overweight but who eat poorly and don’t exercise are at risk for health problems, so bringing up healthy topics is a good idea.

There are worse conversations to have: Do you want to have the weight, healthy food and exercise conversations with your child now or do you want to wait until you are forced to have a diabetes, hypertension or gall bladder disease conversation with your child? These are real disease that children get when they’re overweight.

The sooner the better: It’s easier to discuss weight, food and exercise issues now, then it is to have to inject your child with insulin later on because you said nothing or know that as an adult they’re at a greater risk for heart attack, stroke and early death.

Kids believe what you believe: Kids who are overweight, with parents who don’t bring it up, often think they’re underweight or the right weight. This does not help a kid build healthy habits for life. In fact, one excellent study shows that youth who understood that they were overweight were not more likely to engage in risky weight-related behaviors, such as vomiting or taking medications. Kids who did understand that they were overweight in this study were actually far more likely be trying out healthier habits like exercising and eating less.

Most importantly, kids want to talk about it

I’m always curious about what kids themselves think about weight, diet and activity, so I was reading some youth forums on weight loss and I saw some very interesting and smart comments from kids. For example, one crazy clever preteen stated the following:

A kid who does drugs or smokes would get in trouble if their parents found out. But no one is going to ground you for eating, which can be equally as damaging and is equally as difficult to stop.

Another child noted, “If parents took the time to listen to their kids, less kids would go to the fridge when they’re depressed.

Maybe you’re ignoring food and activity issues in your own home, or maybe you’re not, but if you start visiting forums for kids that relate to weight loss, diet or food issues many like-minded comments from young kids and teens crop up. Kids really don’t seem to think that parents are offering the support they need.

It’s an intriguing but problematic situation and there’s plenty of research to back up what these kids say, akin to parents really do or don’t make a big difference when it comes to healthy habits.

What can parents do? 

The Mayo Clinic offers an excellent piece on what to do when you or someone you care about is in denial. I’d start there.

Research suggests that it can be very useful for parents to realize that being overweight is an actual health risk for their child and not merely an aesthetic concern. That’s true. A healthy weight should not be about your child fitting into skinny jeans or being more attractive. You won’t get far thinking like that, especially since attractiveness is (or should be) in the eye of the beholder anyhow.

You want to think about healthy weight as it relates to overall health. Kids who are overweight face more health risks than kids who are at a proper weight for their size.

Strong4Life has an awesome new movement called “The Talk” that can help you jump-start a conversation about healthy habits. The Talk notes:

“The Talk” is designed to give you the support you need to start this important conversation. First, we’ll give you some things to think about and then, when you’re ready, you can get started. We’ll walk you through The Talk every step of the way.

If you need help facing these issues, The Talk can seriously help.


Study shows that health problems related to childhood obesity are worse than previously thought

A new gigantic study from Johns Hopkins and UCLA, shows that childhood obesity may be a more serious issue than previously thought.

The study involved 43,297 children aged 10 to 17. Researchers on the study assessed how the weights and heights of the children were associated (or not associated) with 21 different indicators of general health, psychosocial functioning, and specific health disorders. The researchers ended up finding out some bad news. First they learned that around 15% of children in the study were overweight and 16% were obese.

Then they learned that the obese children in the study were at twice the risk of their healthy weight peers of having three or more medical, mental or developmental conditions. Overweight youth had a 1.3 times higher risk of the same conditions. This is not insanely surprising news. Childhood obesity has already been associated with plenty of harmful health consequences. However, most past childhood obesity studies focus on long-term health problems. For example, it’s well known that being overweight as a child places you at a higher risk of developing diabetes as an adult. This study went further though, showing that not only do overweight kids face health issues later in life, but that they face health issues sooner, with some health problems rearing their head during adolescence.

Lead author Dr. Neal Halfon, a professor of pediatrics, public health and public policy at UCLA notes:

“This study paints a comprehensive picture of childhood obesity, and we were surprised to see just how many conditions were associated with childhood obesity. The findings should serve as a wake-up call to physicians, parents and teachers, who should be better informed of the risk for other health conditions associated with childhood obesity so that they can target interventions that can result in better health outcomes.“

This new study notes that both being overweight and being obese as a child is associated with many negative health consequences, such as…

  • Poor overall health status.
  • Low emotional functioning.
  • Higher instances of diabetes at a younger age than previously thought. Past studies shows a strong correlation between childhood obesity and adult diabetes, but in this study, the data showed that diabetes is becoming a significant problem by age 15 to 17 and the researchers note, “The relationship between obesity and diabetes is well under way beginning in adolescence.

One of the most alarming findings in this study was that the higher a child’s weight, the more likely they were to experience comorbid conditions. Comorbid conditions refers to having more than one health issue associated with a primary condition, meaning obesity may lead to heart disease AND diabetes or heart disease AND diabetes AND bone and joint problems.

In this study, comorbid conditions overweight youth experienced included ADHD, conduct disorders, depression, learning disabilities, developmental delay,  poor teeth, bone/joint/muscle problems, asthma, allergies, headaches and ear infections. Children who weighed more experienced a higher prevalence of comorbid conditions and greater numbers of comorbidities.

Some other findings…

There was evidence in this study that obesity may have a greater influence on health for higher-income or white children, though the reasons why were unclear.

The study found a link between childhood obesity and school related problems, such as being held back a grade. The association between weight status and repeating a grade were only associated with obesity and could not be explained by the presence of other measured conditions. The researchers note that, “These findings are consistent with an emerging literature demonstrating possible linkages between obesity and lowered academic achievement measured by grade point average, test scores, and performance motivation.”

What this study means for parents:

First and foremost  this study will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to many parents. There’s been a fair amount of denial associated with overweight kids during the last decade or so. If you’ve ever doubted that excess weight equals health problems for kids, then this study should convince you otherwise.

As the researchers point out, over the past 20 years there’s been dramatic increases in the prevalence of childhood obesity and this same, “Time period has also shown large increases in the prevalence of other childhood-onset health conditions such as ADHD, conduct problems, learning difficulties and asthma.”

The researchers go on to speculate that increasing health problems are likely related to recent shifts in the social and physical environment of childhood – meaning how kids are raised nowadays is likely at the core of the obesity issue. We need to make sure kids eat right, get less screen time and more activity time and are taught how to make healthy lifestyle choices for a healthier life now and later on.

+ Associations Between Obesity and Comorbid Mental Health, Developmental, and Physical Health Conditions in a Nationally Representative Sample of US Children Aged 10 to 17

+ Download the pdf of this study

Parent fails when trying to raise healthy kids

When it comes to planning healthy meals, encouraging exercise and promoting an overall healthy life for your child, there are many pitfalls you may fall into. I’m pretty sure all parents are guilty of one kid raising fail or another (yup, even me) but it’s best to try and limit said fails if you want to raise a healthy kid.

childhood obesity, healthy kids, obese kids, overweight american, overweight kids, weight denial

Below are some common pitfalls I’ve seen parents fall into.

  1. You have no clue how much your child weighs.
  2. You get upset if your child’s doctor says your kid should lose weight, eat better or exercise.
  3. You’re not sure what constitutes a healthy meal and exercise plan for your child.
  4. You avoid food and exercise discussions because it’s, “Too late.” I.e your child is older or a teen.
  5. You avoid food and exercise discussions because you are nervous about discussing food issues.
  6. You avoid food and exercise discussions because you fear it may upset your child or you feel your child can’t handle it – ALL kids have the right to learn about healthy lifestyle choices.
  7. Your child is allowed to eat excessive portions – of junk food or healthy food.
  8. You reward your child when he eats well and exercises.
  9. You punish your child when he doesn’t eat well or exercise.
  10. Your child is allowed to load up on food toppings.
  11. Your child is allowed to skip meals - especially breakfast.
  12. You’re confusing food groups with portion sizes.
  13. You keep junk food and treats stocked at all time – like soda, chips, ice creams and so on. These are treats, not everyday fare.
  14. Your child is exercising so you think high calories are a-okay.
  15. You ban your child from eating certain foods.
  16. You believe your child won’t eat healthy foods so you serve unhealthy foods so he, “Won’t starve.
  17. You serve high calorie drinks with every meal.
  18. You think your child deserves a break from healthy eating on weekends.
  19. Your family always or most often eats in front of the T.V.
  20. You fail to role model good exercise and food habits.
  21. You blame external sources for your child’s poor eating and exercise habits instead of looking at your own habits.
  22. You give into treats because you feel guilty about stuff that has nothing to do with food.
  23. You want to be the best pal, not the parent so you never say no to excess food, unhealthy food or treats.

What pitfalls do you or other parents you know fall into?

Image © Arcady

Excess toppings make it easy for kids to pack on calories and fat

If you’re trying to cook healthier and serve your kids the correct food portions, something to watch out for are toppings, sauces and other add-ons.

proper portions, food portions, super sized america, excess toppings

Cream cheese on a bagel can add up the calories quickly. Try a lighter spread then top it off with fruit.

In many cases, parents allow their kids to dish up their own sauces and toppings, without discussing health cons, thus, kids are getting way more calories in a day then they should. In fact, excessive toppings and sauces can turn an average healthy meal into a nightmare meal, as shown below…

5 healthy kid meal ruined by toppings

MEAL 1: 2 average-sized pieces of fish, scoop of long grain rice, steamed mixed veggies and apple and orange slices = 434 calories

+ A normal size serving of tarter sauce (which is considered 2 tablespoons) = 544 calories
+ 9 servings of tarter sauce = 1,424 calories

MEAL 2: 1 bean burrito (with beans, 1/3 cup of 2% cheese, tortilla), 1/2 cup of peas, fruit on the side = 482 calories

+ 1/4 cup sour cream = 601 calories
+ 1/2 cup of sour cream = 720 calories  

MEAL 3: 2 slices of cheese pizza, big bowl of veggie salad plus ranch (1 tablespoon) and fruit 390 = 469 calories

+ 6 extra tablespoons of ranch = 907 calories

MEAL 4: 1/2 breast of baked chicken, 1/2 cup broccoli, normal sized cornmeal muffin and fruit = 465 calories

+ 1/2 cup of processed cheese sauce on the broccoli = 865 calories

MEAL 5: Small baked potato with tablespoon butter, 1 piece of white fish, cup of steamed veggies and fruit = 451 calories

+ 2 more servings of butter, 1/4 cup sour cream, 3 servings of tarter sauce = 1,104 calories

You may as well serve fast food

The average child or teen in the United States needs about 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day. None of the meals above that include massive additions of toppings, fits into a healthy kid calorie range, unless you’re seriously skimping on breakfast, lunch and snacks (which you shouldn’t).

In almost of these situations, you’d be better off calorie-wise, simply buying your kid a Happy Meal (860 calories).

Beyond calories, another problem with the toppings above – tarter sauce, sour cream, ranch, cheese sauce and so on, is that these toppings get almost 100% of their calories from fat. Basically, you’re just advocating pure fat when you allow your kid to eat this way.

What to do?

You’ve got a couple of choices here, and it’ll really depend on how you’ve raised your child thus far.

proper portions, food portions, super sized america, excess toppings

Use fruit instead of sugar to top off cereal.

Situation one – you’re raising a healthy eater from birth

Role model healthy topping portion sizes for your child when he’s young. No one is saying that you should cut toppings entirely. However, there’s a healthy way to eat them and an unhealthy way to eat them. With young children, it’s best to place the toppings on their food for them, so they can get an idea of what’s a healthy serving size.

Do not add needless toppings, such as sugar to cereal or fruit ever. Kids should be able to eat a basic food like cereal or fruit without an added sweetener.

Before you even add toppings, make sure it’s necessary. Not all foods need toppings. If you raise your child on burritos that are sour-cream-free, and potatoes with light butter or no butter at all, you may be surprised that he’ll simply eat his food without a topping. Kids develop a taste for fatty toppings, they’re not born with a taste for them.

Two – you’ve got an older child or teen who has been raised with toppings galore

Here you’ve got two choices. You can get rid of toppings entirely. For example, don’t keep tarter sauce in your house. I know some parents who do this, and I actually think it’s a horrid plan. Kids, once grown will run into toppings and they should know how to use them properly. It’s lame to pretend toppings don’t exist. Secondly it’s not fair to people in the household who use toppings correctly. Banning food, is not, in my opinion, EVER a realistic or useful plan when it comes to teaching kids about nutrition.

A better choice is to start changing everyone’s habits. When you serve foods that kids are used to eating with toppings, don’t add the topping right away, see if your child will eat the food without.

If your child asks for a topping, say ranch, serve him up a proper amount and serve yourself one too, saying, “This is how much a real serving of salad dressing is.” It’s up to you if you discuss calories or not and fat or not – some kids can handle this conversation in little bits, some can’t. If your child gets defensive saying you didn’t give him enough, point out that the ENTIRE family is attempting to eat healthier and you’d like everyone involved. It can take time for a child to get used to food without toppings, so be prepared to stick to your guns.

Some research says you shouldn’t police food, especially if you’ve allowed your child to eat whatever he wants so far in life. However, I don’t consider limiting toppings, policing food. Sure, it’s frustrating and hard to have to change habits now, but in my opinion, it’s better to change habits now than to have your child’s belly fat get out of control or have your kid develop diabetes. I guess it’s up to you.

Little things you can do

  • Buy alternative toppings. Salsa, for example, is a healthier topping than sour cream. Ketchup is surprisingly healthy and low-calorie, and this is a topping kids actually like. Lemon plus a little sugar in ice tea is better than a ton of sugar alone. Italian dressing can be a better salad dressing choice than ranch. BBQ sauce is low fat, low calorie and works well with many foods.
  • Don’t dress up foods just because. Adding cheese to veggies or even butter should be considered a very once in a while event vs. an every evening sort of deal.
  • Spice and sweeten up foods with herbs, spices and fruit, not toppings.
  • Learn to be a better cook. Often I’ve seen people add toppings to make food taste better. If you cook well in the first place, toppings become less necessary.
  • Role model, role model, role model – there’s no way to emphasize this enough. If you load on toppings it’s totally unfair and confusing for a kid if you limit their toppings.
  • Don’t keep toppings on the table, such as butter, dressing or sugar.
  • Plan meals that don’t need toppings, or plan meals that need less calorie-dense toppings.
  • Use less toppings slowly. For example, if your child insists on 9 tablespoons of tarter sauce, suggest they add just six. The next time you serve fish, bring it down more, to maybe three tablespoons. Eventually, hopefully, they’ll develop a taste for the food you’re serving vs. the topping.

Bagel image via Flickr User ozmafan; cereal image by blackcat79 via sxc.

Encourage healthy kid lifestyle habits with the bare minimum

As a parent, your child’s health is your responsibility. As such, it’s your job to encourage healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Of course, you can do a lot of good in this area, but at the very least try to make sure you do the following…

Know your child’s weight

If you don’t know your child’s weight or BMI right now, then you have no idea where your child stands health-wise. It’s 100% true that health issues aren’t all about the scale, but those numbers do matter. You should know your kid’s weight from babyhood through the teens years.

Talk about food and related health issues

Food portions, healthy vs. less healthy choices, calories and all the other food issues you can dream up shouldn’t be taboo in your home. Food, portions, calories and exercise are very normal parts of everyone’s lives. Your child has a right to know about food issues and it’s your responsibility to discuss said issues with him, ongoing, the entire time he lives in your home. Below are some basic facts your child should understand…

  • Weight, food choices and exercise are not all about looking good – it’s about being healthy for life.
  • Thin or overweight doesn’t always mean healthy or unhealthy BUT both issues can result in health problems.
  • People who are at a healthy weight can still make poor food choices or might not get enough exercise.
  • It’s not healthy to sit inactive all day long. Exercise and being active, offer many benefits beyond maintaining a healthy weight.
  • No matter how healthy your food is, when it’s eaten in excess, that food can result in excess calories and weight gain.

You have to deliver the whole diet, health and lifestyle conversation package to your child. Not simply bits and pieces. Let your child know that weight, calories, exercise and food choices all combine to create a healthy lifestyle. Don’t just assume your child knows about healthy food because she exercises or knows about exercise because she’s thin. No matter if your child is overweight, skinny or right on target – food and health issues need to be discussed in your home.

Serve three healthy meals a day and snacks

I know parents who leave kids to fend for themselves food-wise, but you shouldn’t. Even if you talk about food, young kids still need help figuring out meals. I know teens and even younger kids who skip both breakfast and lunch daily, making up the difference with chips and other less healthy food, simply because no one is there encouraging them to eat.

I get that not all parents can be around their child for all three meals. I’m not around my own child all day either – Cedar eats lunch at school and stays at his dad’s on some weekends. However, Cedar heads off to school with a healthy lunch I know he’ll eat and I make sure I know what he’s eating at his dad’s house. When everything is nuts, or I have an appointment, I make sure to leave a healthy meal ready for him.

Be your child’s food advocate

In a world of school lunches and separated or divorced families, it’s hard to always stay on top of what your child is eating. Guess what though, that’s your job as a parent. If your child splits his time between two households, and the other parent feeds him high calorie fast food, huge portions, or doesn’t encourage exercise, it’s your job to advocate for your child. Even if what you say doesn’t seem to affect the other parent’s choices at first, keep talking about it. Your child’s health, even when he’s not with you, is your concern.

With this in mind, you should also be aware of what your child is eating at school. Find out what schools are serving and if you don’t like it, send a packed lunch.

Address denial

One of the biggest hurdles parents have is denial about their child’s weight. If your child is overweight or too skinny or never exercises you do need to address it, not ignore it. I’ve met kids who are larger than their own parents are, kids with huge amounts of belly fat and even kids where someone else has said, “They weigh too much” such as a doctor, yet the parents just keep on saying, “My kids are just fine… they’re in no way overweight.” That’s denial.

Parents of underweight children or kids who never exercise may have some of the same denial issues. And while denial may be easier for everyone, it’s not healthy for your child.

Deal with your own food issues

Some parents allow their own food issues to affect their kids. If you have your own food issues, deal with them, or at the very least, don’t push them on your child. I was raised in a home where weight mattered more than food choices or exercise because being thin was compared to “being pretty” not “being healthy” as it should have been. I know it affected me and I had to work hard to deal with it so that I wouldn’t push issues onto my son.

I talk about food with my son, but I try to make it clear that food issues involve a wide range of topics, from food choices to activity to portions and so on. If you’re upset by past food issues, it can affect your parenting, so addressing these issues is important.

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