If your child is overweight or obese, helping them get to a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for them now and in the future. But what’s the right way to do it? That usually depends on your child’s age.
There’s no single number on the scale that all kids must reach to be healthy. The right range depends on how tall they are, their gender, and their age. In fact, many children shouldn’t actually lose weight -- they should just maintain it as they grow taller or put on pounds more slowly. But if they have more severe obesity, espeically if they have obesity-related health conditions, your child's pediatrician may make a different recommendation.
How can you tell if your child needs to slim down? Talk to their health care provider. They can help you come up with a safe plan. Also, some expert advice may help you know what to focus on to help your child reach a healthy weight, no matter their age.
Ages 1 to 6
Goal: In most cases, kids at these ages should stay at the same weight or gain it at a slower rate. If the child has more severe obesity, their doctor may have other advice.
What you can do: When kids are very young, you’re in charge of their routine. Make sure your child’s day includes plenty of time -- at least 60 minutes -- to be active, whether it’s climbing the jungle gym at the park, playing tag in the backyard, or jumping around in the living room. They don’t have to get their exercise all at once. Short bursts of activity throughout the day that add up to an hour are just fine.
At meal and snack times, offer them a variety of nutritious choices. Your child -- and the whole family -- can eat healthier with a few simple steps:
- Cut back on processed and fast foods. They tend to be higher in calories and fat. Instead, fill your child’s plate with fruits and vegetables, and trade white bread, rice, and pasta for their whole-grain versions. They have fiber, which can help your child feel full for longer. If your kid isn’t a fan of these changes at first, don’t give up. Research shows that children are more likely to eat something after they’ve seen it on their plates a few times.
- Don’t serve sugary drinks. Swap soda, juice, and sports drinks for water and skim or low-fat milk.
- Encourage good eating habits. Three meals and two snacks a day can keep your child from getting too hungry, which make them less likely to overeat.
- Make small changes. Overhauling your family’s diet all at once can leave your child upset or confused. Start with a few changes each week. “Talk with your child about the choices you make,” says Mollie Greves Grow, MD, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Explain that some foods give them more energy to play.
Ages 7 to 10
Goal: In most cases, stay at the same weight or gain it at a slower rate. But if the child has more severe obesity, your child's doctor may make another recommendation.
What you can do: Kids at these ages have opinions of their own. But they still need help from parents. Now’s the time to give your child the tools and lessons they need to make healthy choices throughout life. The following strategies can help:
- Stock your kitchen with nutritious foods. By now, kids can help themselves to snacks. You can make healthy choices easier for them by keeping junk food out of the house. “It’s easier for your child to make the right choice when they’re deciding between an apple or banana instead of an apple or cookie,” says George Datto, MD, chief of the pediatric weight management division at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
And it probably won’t work to simply declare those treats off-limits: Research shows that restricting foods may make your kid want to eat them even more.
- Set ground rules for TV and computer time. The time kids spend sitting in front of a screen is time that they aren’t being active. When that becomes a habit, it leads to weight gain. Make sure your child knows that they only have a set amount of time to use the TV, smartphone, video games, or computer.
When screen time is over, encourage them to get up and play. Kids at this age need the same amount of exercise as younger children -- a total of 60 minutes throughout the day. That could mean riding their bike, going swimming, or playing catch or basketball.
- Get them in the kitchen. It’s a good time to teach them about healthy eating, Grow says. Let them help plan your menu, shop for groceries, and cook meals. Chances are they’ll be more excited about a wholesome meal if they’ve had a say in preparing it.
- Get the entire family on board. You don’t want your child to feel singled out because of their weight. Talk with the whole family about the importance of healthy choices. And remember: Children copy their parents’ habits. That means if you want your child to eat more veggies or get more exercise, you need to do it, too.
Ages 11 to 17
Goal: Many kids need to stay at the same weight or gain it at a slower rate as they grow taller. After puberty, your child may be able to lose up to 1 or 2 pounds a week. Speak with their doctor to decide what’s right for them.
- What you can do: Preteens and teens are old enough to make decisions about their own health. But your guidance still matters. Work together with your child to help them make smart choices. Even better? Make a plan to get the entire family on the right track with food, exercise, and less screen use.
- Make health the goal. The wrong comments about your child’s weight can harm their self-esteem. Take the focus off of weight loss. “The conversation should be about being healthy and active,” not about getting to a specific size or number on the scale, says Natalie Muth, MD, a pediatrician and registered dietitian.
- Keep up family mealtimes. Teens have busy schedules. But it’s important to sit down to eat as a family as often as you can. One study found that kids who had family mealtimes at least three times a week were 24% more likely to eat healthy foods than those who didn’t.
- Offer support. If your child says that they want to slim down, it’s important to understand their motivation. Are other kids bullying them about their size?Are they trying to model a celebrity’s physique? Those are not good reasons to try to lose weight. Make sure they understand that looks aren’t the important part -- it’s about making healthy choices so they have the energy to move and think.
Then, you can talk about specific ways to support them, like keeping junk food out of the house or planning a family walk or bike ride each evening.
Does your child want to try a weight loss plan? Some programs are tailored for older kids. They may be safe and helpful, but always speak with your child’s doctor before they start a plan of their own.
- Encourage them to get moving. Like younger kids, preteens and teens need an hour of physical activity every day. They don’t have to tackle it all at once -- shorter sessions throughout the day work just as well. At this age, they probably aren’t as interested in running around at the playground. “Help them find a type of exercise they enjoy, such as dance or a certain sport,” Muth says.
Remember that more time moving will probably mean spending less time with video games or smartphones. Help your teen keep their screen use to a minimum. One great way: Put your own devices away and get active together.