Understanding and Talking to Your Kids About Weight

May 6, 2020

We know that child overweight and obesity is a problem; 18.5% of kids and teens are overweight or obese. Less physical activity, frequent, unsupervised snacking during the day, lower quality foods chosen, and higher stress and anxiety levels (yes, even in kids!) are all contributors to childhood weight issues. I think many people are quick to blame parents for their child’s weight, with statements like “they feed them too much” or “all they eat is junk food.” To make general statements like these is not helpful, and there is usually not just one reason why a child struggles with weight. First, genetics play a huge role in the weight of a child. If mom and dad are bigger, chances are the child will be bigger. We must also be mindful and sensitive to financial and social circumstances. A single mom with three kids and two jobs likely doesn’t have much time to cook, so she relies on cheap convenience foods often laden with sugar, salt, and fat. No one asks to be in this situation, but life happens and these are realities. Finally, we must talk about environment. What is the eating structure like at home? How do parents relate to their children at the table? Is physical activity encouraged? This is where parents DO play a role, and it’s so important that parents are educated in how to talk to their children about food and weight.

In my practice, I have seen my fair share of the kids who are gaining weight too quickly and there often is an “eating too much and not moving enough” complex. For those families, nutrition education with the child and parents is key. Some of these children really would benefit from a little weight loss, but I never say it so bluntly. Weight loss is never my number one goal for kids. We focus on healthful changes for the whole family that will slow weight gain and maybe result in a few pounds lost. A family approach is so important so that the child doesn’t feel singled out. But what about the children who eat a healthy diet, get regular physical activity, and are still rapidly gaining weight? Maybe the pediatrician will run some lab tests to check thyroid function and other metabolic markers, or maybe this is just how the child is supposed to be growing! Some kids track at the 95th percentile for weight for most of their childhood. As long as the child is following along their own growth curve, eating a healthful diet and moving their body daily, truly I am not worried! Remember, children are supposed to gain weight. That’s how they grow! It’s when we see an unexpected jump in the growth curve or abnormalities in blood sugar or blood lipids that we start to get concerned (for example, if your child has been tracking at the 60th percentile and jumps to the 85th in one year, it’s time for an evaluation). We cannot compare one child’s weight to another, even between siblings, because each child is unique and meant to grow in their own way.

No matter what the reason for your child’s increased weight, we never want to comment on their weight, one way or another. In fact, try not to make comments about your own weight in front of them, either. Children, especially girls, pick up on our adult negative body image talk very quickly. I’ve had girls in my office for eating disorder treatment as young as 9 years old because of the way an adult commented on their weight. Pushing your own body image issues onto your children is unfair to them and has the potential to set them up for a lifetime of their own body image issues, chronic dieting, and poor self-esteem. On this topic, when a child, adolescent, or even adult loses weight; let’s think twice before we comment on their weight loss. Maybe they have been exercising and changing their eating habits for the better, but maybe they’ve lost weight due to a medical condition, mental illness, or eating disorder. We just don’t know. I worked with one young teenager with a roaring eating disorder who kept losing weight; she told me that friends and family were commenting on how great she looks. Naturally, when you’re told you look great, you’re going to continue that behavior, healthy or not.

The bottom line? You, nor I, know the whole story. So let’s not pass judgments on anyone’s weight, especially a child’s. What you can do as a parent is educate yourself and you child on child nutrition and be sure to follow healthful eating guidelines WITH your child. If you need help, please seek the help of a Registered Dietitian. Let’s foster the most healthful physical, emotional, and food environments that we can for our children!