If your child is overweight, it can be frustrating if they are trying their best to lose weight but the weight hasn’t changed. It may also be concerning given the health risks of childhood obesity, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and asthma.
This article explores common reasons children are overweight and the mistakes parents sometimes make when helping their children lose weight. It provides a reasonable guideline for children to lose weight without posing a threat to their health or well-being.
Reasons why children gain (and maintain) weight
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proportion of children affected by obesity has tripled since the 1970s. There are two simple explanations for the increase in childhood obesity: too many calories and too little physical activity.
Some of the key factors contributing to this include:
- family eating habits
- high-calorie, high-fat diet
- large servings
- Frequent fast food, convenience foods, or snacks
- Eating processed foods (such as baked goods, microwave meals, and pizza)
- drinking soda and sugar-sweetened beverages
- A sedentary lifestyle (such as watching TV and playing video games)
- family or personal stress
Certain factors increase the risk of childhood obesity, including high-calorie diets, large portion sizes, family eating habits, eating processed or convenience foods, stress or boredom, and an inactive lifestyle with excessive TV or video games.
Learn what causes childhood obesity
Common weight loss mistakes
On paper, losing weight should be easy—just eat less and exercise more. But as parents know, it’s easier said than done. Challenges tend to be greater for children because they may lack self-control and are more tempted by school friends.
Many children’s weight loss programs fail for the following reasons:
Not setting realistic weight loss goals is a common problem. Rather than losing weight, a good first goal might be to simply stop gaining weight. If your child hits this goal after a few months, then you can modify their diet and activity level to start losing weight.
Too many attempts, too early
Adults often quit dieting because they try too much too soon. If parents force changes to their diet and exercise habits, kids do the same.
Problems can arise if parents suddenly decide to switch from whole milk to skim milk, skip all sodas and juices, and don’t allow any junk food in the house. At the same time, even if a child is playing video games most of the time, they may enroll their child in sports or personal training.
Extreme changes like this will only fail the child. A better approach is to focus on incremental changes with clear long-term goals.
no increase in physical activity
Exercise levels should not stand still. Keeping your child engaged in the same level of activity week after week will get them nowhere.
Start with 15 to 20 minutes of exercise per day and gradually increase the intensity and duration each week. In time, your child should get at least an hour of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a day and more vigorous physical activity at least 3 times a week.
Fitness and Exercise Tips for Kids
stick to old pastimes
You may not be able to stop all TV or video games, but you should set a time limit for these activities. Your child may whine and whine at first, but will eventually be forced into other activities.
Work with your child to identify sports or outdoor activities that appeal to them. By finding something they like, they’re likely to stick with it.
lack of meal plan
Parents must make a conscious decision to reduce the portion size and type of high-fat, high-calorie foods that family members may enjoy. This is no mean feat, especially if some members of the family are heavy and others are not.
You can help reduce stress by planning meals ahead of time. Instead of giving everyone “diet foods,” mix family favorites with foods that are lower in calories, fat, and sugar.
By planning ahead, you can count calories while making sure you meet the nutritional goals of the whole family. It also prevents you from “picking up whatever you have” or asking for a pizza if you don’t know what to do.
It is important to eat throughout the day to maintain a steady metabolism (burning calories for energy). If your child skips meals, their metabolism and energy levels plummet. When this happens, your child may reach for a sugary snack or feast on anything they can to boost their energy.
It is important to emphasize the importance of three meals a day from an early age. You can also teach your kids which snacks are good for them if they need it.
Perhaps the hardest part of losing weight is not being motivated to make the changes that need to be made. Involving your child in the process, educating them about the reasons for the change, and rewarding them for their progress can go a long way.
Involving family members can also go a long way in motivating children. Not only does it provide them with a role model to follow, but it also makes them feel less isolated.
Reasons why weight loss programs often fail in children include unrealistic expectations, lack of meal planning, lack of family involvement, failure to improve children’s health, and failure to place restrictions on television or video games.
When a child can’t seem to lose weight
For the vast majority of children, weight loss comes down to burning more calories than they consume through food and drink. As a parent, it helps to keep track of those two things. You might be surprised how many calories are in certain snacks, or how many calories you burn during certain activities.
You can help your child by:
- Keep a log to track their daily activity. You can use an activity tracker app to estimate how many calories you’ve burned.
- Record every meal, drink or snack eaten throughout the day. You can use a calorie counting app to estimate how many calories you have burned.
- Involve your child in a physical activity they enjoy instead of running on a treadmill or walking around the neighborhood.
- Eat better as a family with healthy snacks, drinks and foods.
- Get the whole family involved in daily physical activity.
- Provide positive feedback when goals are achieved and encouragement when goals are not.
If your child is unable to lose weight despite these methods, talk to your pediatrician. There may be other reasons for their inability to lose weight.
Losing weight is ultimately about burning more calories than you eat. By tracking your child’s food intake and daily activity, you can make adjustments to each to ensure your weight loss goals are met.
How professionals can help
Your pediatrician can evaluate your child for conditions that may cause weight gain, including Cushing’s syndrome and hypothyroidism. If there are no specific health conditions that affect your child’s weight, the following may be recommended:
Weight Management Program
Your child’s doctor can recommend a weight loss program that teaches your child how to change certain habits to lose weight. These are usually provided by local hospitals and community home health centers. Programs vary depending on the age of the child, but generally involve counseling and education for the child and their family.
Weight Watchers offers programs for children ages 10 to 16. A parent’s signature and a doctor’s recommendation are required. The program involves face-to-face meetings and one-on-one support. Unlike adult plans, children cannot participate in online meetings.
Working with a registered dietitian
A registered dietitian can tailor a plan based on your child’s unique needs and limitations. A dietitian can also help create a meal plan to help with weight loss and ensure your child is getting adequate nutrition.
Get a health coach
There are paid online tutoring programs that can help obese children. One such project is Kurbo Health Coaching, which offers one-on-one remote coaching and a weight-loss app designed for children between the ages of 8 and 18.
The company’s guidance is based on research from Stanford and other leading universities. Coaches provide weekly remote support to check progress and offer encouragement and advice. Coaches are also available 24/7 via email or text message.
In addition to your child’s pediatrician, there are other professionals experienced in childhood obesity and weight loss. These include registered dietitians, weight loss programs for children and online health coaches.
If your child is overweight or obese, it is important to take a sensible approach to weight loss. One of the first goals is to identify the root causes of weight gain so you can aim to correct them. These may include your child’s diet and eating habits, lack of physical activity, and personal issues such as stress or boredom.
One of the reasons weight loss programs fail in children is that parents often set unrealistic goals. Focus on incremental change and get the whole family involved. It also helps to plan meals in advance, set limits on TV and video games, and gradually increase fitness levels each week.
If your child is having trouble losing weight, make sure they are burning more calories than they are consuming. If it still doesn’t help, seek professional help from a pediatrician, registered dietitian, weight loss program for children, or an online child health coach.
Childhood Obesity Treatment