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Helping Your 'Not-Thin' Kids

What parents should (and shouldn't) do

Eating Disorders on the Rise continued...

Research shows these illnesses may be hereditary (as much so as schizophrenia). But environment is also important.

"For anorexia, the vulnerable temperament is anxious, harm-avoidant, perfectionistic, disciplined, restrained, responsible, people-pleasing," says Mickley, "while for bulimia, being more impulsive, stimulus-seeking, and [changeable] seems to put people more at risk."

In a vulnerable person, experts say, an intentional -- even appropriate -- weight loss "diet" can generate a series of events that help set an eating disorder in motion.

So what should a concerned parent do when a child is overweight or obese? And -- just as important -- what should parents not do? Here are some tips from the experts:

What Parents Should Do:

  • Have regular family meals and structured snacks. This gives children a sense of security, Satter says. "Teens who have regular meals do better in all ways -- nutritionally, socially, emotionally, academically," says Satter.
  • Trust your child to eat what, and as much, as he or she needs from what you serve. Based on decades of experience working with children, Satter says that preteens and teens (along with younger children) do best when parents take the lead of the "what" "when" and "where" of feeding, but trust children to manage "how much" and "whether" they eat.
  • Find realistic ways to increase activity and decrease sedentary time, recommends the American Dietetic Association. Do this as a family; finding ways to exercise will help make everyone healthy and strong.
  • Be a good role model in your eating and exercise habits. Avoid fad diets and obsessing about body size or weight.
  • Increase the fiber in your family's food choices. Fiber comes with a laundry list of health benefits -- from lowering cholesterol and potentially reducing the risk of some cancers, to helping us feel full faster. Serve more whole grains, higher-fiber breakfast cereals, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Offer fewer beverages (and foods) sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, and more low- or no-calorie beverages (like water, unsweetened hot or cold tea, and low-fat milk). Some experts say part of the rise in obesity in the U.S. is due to rising consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, which is used in many soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks, and packaged baked goods. One study found that rats fed a high-fructose diet were more likely to develop features of metabolic syndrome, says researcher Richard J. Johnson, MD, of the University of Florida College of Medicine. Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms linked to a high risk of diabetes and heart disease.
  • Serve a balanced breakfast. Kids who eat healthy breakfasts tend to score better on school tests, and to be less overweight than children who skip the morning meal. A balanced breakfast contains protein (from grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats, or egg whites); fiber; and a little fat, too.
  • Focus on fitness -- rather than thinness -- for the whole family. "We have shown here at the Cooper Institute [in Dallas] that men and women who achieve a high level of fitness, regardless of weight, live longer and develop fewer chronic illnesses than thin people who aren't fit," says Steven Blair, chief executive officer.
  • Call a family meeting, and ask each person to share what his or her favorite foods/dishes are. The family can then incorporate them (or more healthful versions of them) into a balanced week or month of meals.
  • Limit television and computer time. Not only do TV and computers decrease time available for physical activity, but TV viewing has been linked to greater consumption of soda, fried foods, and snacks. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents limit their child's use of TV, movies, and video and computer games to no more than two hours per day.
  • Encourage the whole family to eat slowly. When you eat slowly, you're more likely to enjoy what you are eating and to be in touch with your physical hunger and fullness physical signals.
  • Seek professional help for children who seem excessively anxious, depressed, or negative about their bodies; who diet excessively or inappropriately; or become preoccupied with weight and body size. Mickley urges parents to get help for their child at the first hint of a possible eating disorder.
  • Help your child think critically about media messages that encourage unrealistic, unhealthy body images and attitudes.

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