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Helping Children Get Thin

Winning by Losing

Is Dieting Risky? continued...

With the best of intentions, some parents have put their child on the same fad diets that they've become hooked on, often oblivious to any potential health risks. The Atkins diet, for example, promotes unlimited amounts of protein and fat, and severe restrictions on carbohydrate-rich foods, which some experts believe could be a prescription for nutritional misfortune in kids.

"The Atkins diet is so restrictive that children can become deficient in many vitamins and minerals," cautions Rarback. "It is low in calcium, for instance, and growing children certainly need calcium. It is also low in grains that are fortified with iron, folic acid, and the B vitamins.

"Anyone on the Atkins diet needs to take supplements, and I'm very uncomfortable with children being on any diet where they rely on pills for their vitamins and minerals."

There are even some diet books aimed specifically at children, most notably Sugar Busters! for Kids, whose authors include three physicians. An analysis of the book, recently issued by the ADA, says that "there is little to criticize about this diet since it encourages a very healthy lifestyle, including nutritious foods that children typically avoid." At the same time, the critique from the ADA questions the program's restrictive nature, which makes foods like sugary sodas, french fries, candy, white rice, and potatoes taboo; the ADA notes that by denying children their favorite foods completely, it sets them up for eventual failure.

"It's unrealistic to tell an 8-year-old to never eat desserts again," says Rarback. "Make them 'occasional foods.' It's not every mouthful that counts -- it's the total diet."

Losing the Right Way

If your child needs to tighten his belt, keep these guidelines in mind when choosing a diet plan:

  • Set modest goals. "A growing child shouldn't lose more than one pound a week," says Eden. So go slow, and avoid diets that are overly restrictive.
  • Reduce saturated fat. More foods should come from the fruit, vegetable, and grain groups, and less from sugar-rich foods and high-fat meats and dairy products.
  • Limit portion sizes. To help reduce the intake of calories, don't weigh down your child's plate with food. "With the availability of 'super-sizing' at fast-food restaurants, you can get 500 extra calories for a few more pennies, which isn't the bargain that some kids think it is," says Bruner.
  • Get the family involved. Parents should adopt healthy eating habits themselves, advises Bruner. "Not only will they become role models, but their overweight children won't feel singled out for attention about their weight."
  • Make exercise a daily activity. Get your youngster involved in family activities such as biking, swimming, and hiking. "Children can't lose weight with only diet or only exercise," says Eden. "They must do both."
  • Reduce TV time. When kids are watching TV, they're not exercising and they might be eating. A study at Stanford University concluded that children who limit their time in front of the tube tend to be thinner than youngsters who are glued to the screen.

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