If you’re a parent of an overweight kid and are trying to find ways to help him or her shed a few pounds, you might be wondering: “Are diets for kids a healthy option?” Perhaps your child needs to change some aspects of his diet, but experts say dieting is not the answer.
“For the average kid, we do not recommend a diet,” says Dr. Stacy Leatherwood, a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health System’s New Center One. “We usually suggest a family-centered approach, which is changing the culture of the home and engaging in physical activities,” she says.
Samantha Linden, founder of Nutrition in Balance, registered dietitian and Bloomfield mom of two, agrees with this approach but also warns against the usage of the word “diet” with children.
“I prefer to use the term diet to talk about what you are eating and not focus on what you are not eating. That being said, I do support and encourage parents to make shifts toward healthier options for their kids,” she adds.
Nutrition for kids
The time to begin this healthy lifestyle is right now. Linden says this can be done as early as kindergarten as long as it’s done in an “age appropriate way.” “Children learn the most about food and nutrition with hands-on experiences, like going to the store or the farmer’s market and helping prepare meals,” she says. “The benefits are endless.”
So how can you introduce your child to this world of healthy eating without hurting their self-esteem? The topic of weight can be very sensitive – especially for school-aged kids who may have already experienced some form of teasing.
Leatherwood emphasizes the family-centered approach again here. “Talk about becoming healthier and not losing weight. That way your kid doesn’t feel like the focal point,” she says.
After the conversation, present your kid with healthier options. Leatherwood says they promote a 5-2-1-0 approach. “It’s a healthy lifestyle message,” she says. “Five fruits or vegetables a day, two hours or less of recreational screen time, one hour or more of physical activity and zero sweetened drinks,” she explains. Learn more about the 5210 approach here.
If you’re not sure how to get your child to eat five different fruits and veggies, Linden says there are ways to make it fun.
“For example, cut up an assortment of colored vegetables and bring them to the table. Have your kids eat them while you are getting dinner ready. Since veggies usually aren’t the most popular food on the plate, serving them alone while your kids are hungry increases the chances of them eating them,” she adds.
While many parents pressure their children during dinnertime to eat vegetables, you’d be surprised where the calories are really coming from. Linden says in her experience of working with clients, the snacks are to blame. “We live in a snack-obsessed culture,” she says. “Kids are given snacks every few hours and most of the time, they are eating when they are not hungry.”
While Leatherwood agrees with the snacking problem, she adds that many parents don’t think about the amount of sweetened drinks their child consumes. “A lot of kids may eat healthy, but they consume a lot of juice. Juice is a sweetened drink because of the natural sugars. You may read the labels of Kool-Aid or Capri-Sun, which will say they’re all natural, but they are loaded with natural sugar,” she adds.
In addition to promoting healthier eating habits, it’s important to make sure your child is engaged in physical activity. Leatherwood says many parents think their kids are active since they run around the house all day, but encourages parents to ask themselves: “Is my child truly getting that hour a day of recommended physical activity?” This would include taking a brisk walk, running, jumping rope or even playing on a jungle gym.
After all, “it’s not really about losing weight, but about slowing the rate of weight gain or maintaining the current weight. Even a thinner child can have unhealthy habits,” she says.