Conquer Childhood Obesity Without Damaging Self-Esteem

Your chubby child isn’t outgrowing his baby fat, and you’re a little worried.

But how do you help a child establish healthy eating and exercise habits for life without becoming a food cop?
First, here’s what NOT to do. Don’t write about your 7-year-old child’s struggles and the diet you put her on in Vogue magazine. That was what Dara-Lynn Weiss did, and according to dietitian Betsy Hjelmgren of Feed to Succeed in Glenview, that mother stunted the little girl’s growth and injured her self-esteem.

“She will be underweight or overweight her whole life, because her mom showed her that weight and appearance are what’s important.”

So you’re not going to make that mistake, but what can you do?

Visualize Your Plate

Follow the USDA’s My Plate, and you won’t have to think about portions, says dietitian Robin Levy of Fuel Up to Play 60 in Chicago.  At meals, half your plate should contain fruits and vegetables; the other half whole grains, a lean protein and a side of milk.  For snacks, eat two or three of those combinations.

Consider it a Family Challenge

Call his weight a challenge, not a problem, says Dori Mages, a social worker with North Shore Pediatric Therapy in Highland Park.  Explain that everyone has challenges in their lives and, at this time, this is something that’s hard for you.

A Northbrook mother did just that when she hired a nutritionist to help her overweight daughters.  “Everyone has to learn the correct way to eat,” she told them.  “You’re just doing it now.”

Make it fun, says Sara Swiderski, a dietitian with North Shore University Health System in Evanston.

  • Try food from other cultures
  • Give your kids a cookbook and let them choose what to make
  • Collaborate on the grocery list and shop together
  • Schedule a family treat day

Be sensitive

Motivate your child to exercise by relating to his interests, Hjelmgren says.  For instance, “You’ll run faster at recess or score more goals in soccer,” is going to work better than “You need to exercise.”

And remember, don’t make it a power struggle. If an overweight child has a healthy routine, then he can have a cupcake at a party.  It’s about balance, she says.

And finally, here are a few other behaviors you should avoid as you help your child transition to healthier habits:

  • Talking about food or other people’s appearance
  • Watching your child like a hawk when he or she eats
  • Making junk food available
  • Focusing on the negative

Always keep in mind, “You don’t want to be a food cop,” Swiderski says, “but not every day is a holiday we have to celebrate with feasting.”