The obesity epidemic among American kids is not news, and although increased nutritional education, improved school cafeteria options and the addition of physical activity programs have had a positive impact, the problem is still real for one third of U.S. children who are considered overweight or obese.
Weight issues often affect an entire family. “Having one obese parent increases the risk of obesity in a child two- to three-fold, and having two obese parents increases the risk fifteen-fold,” says Dr. Sarah Gangadhar, MD, a pediatrician at Franciscan Physician Network. Sometimes however, only one person at home may be affected. For a child who struggles with weight in a family where everyone else does not, life can be particularly difficult. How can parents help kids in this unique situation?
Reasons for childhood obesity
Childhood obesity is influenced by genetic, environmental and developmental factors, so teasing out the “cause” can be complicated. According to Dr. Gangadhar, “Just how much each individual factor contributes to weight management likely varies between certain populations, ethnicities and individuals.” Some severe genetic disorders resulting in obesity do exist, but these are accompanied by other unhealthy signs and symptoms not seen in the majority of overweight children. These severe genetic disorders are rare, but smaller genetic influences (waiting to be discovered) may be contributing to the overall obesity epidemic in the general population. For most children, lifestyle (diet and exercise) plays the largest role in influencing weight.
If you find that only one child in your home struggles with their weight, see a doctor to make sure that an underlying health condition such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s Disease or a genetic syndrome is not the cause. In most cases, an underlying diagnosis will not exist, but ruling this out will guide how you approach the situation. It may simply be that your child has a genetic predisposition to gain weight more easily than the other children in your home.
Talking with your overweight child
Dr. Gangadhar points out that younger children may not understand the genetic component of weight gain. Putting concepts into simple terms can be very helpful. Simply explain, “Some people gain weight more easily than others, and you are one of those people. That means that you will have to work a little harder to have a healthy weight.” Let your child know that you understand that this situation isn’t fair, but that there are things you can do together to make it better. Talking about how you will incorporate a more active lifestyle and healthier eating habits, rather than focusing on a “weight problem” will help eliminate a message of blame or embarrassment for your child.
Making necessary changes
Although gulping down a 12-ounce Coke with a Big Mac and fries may not result in a bump on the scale for every other member in your family, your overweight child does not have this luxury. Even though your waistline may not show the evidence of your poor diet, your internal organs know the difference! Making healthy dietary changes as an entire family will improve everyone’s health – and avoid making your heavy child feel singled out. If your family already sticks to a routinely healthy diet, then adjusting portion sizes for your overweight child may be the key to losing weight. Cutting out sugary beverages (including juice and chocolate milk) can also be a simple way to shave off a few excess calories.
Increasing exercise is also a key element to maintaining a healthy weight. Decrease screen time and encourage your child to play outside or find a physical activity they find enjoyable. Make exercise a family affair by going for walks together, riding bikes or doing any other type of activity that gets everyone moving. Your willingness to exercise together demonstrates to your child that you are all in this together. “Studies have shown that having a parent participate in positive lifestyle changes is more effective for long-term weight management…Parent participation helps improve program adherence, and helps create a healthier home for everyone,” says Dr. Gangadhar.
Getting your child down to an appropriate weight can be a challenge, but by making a healthy lifestyle a goal for the entire family, your child will feel supported and less alone in the process. Set reasonable goals and expect some setbacks, but keep your eye on the prize of helping your child achieve a healthy body that can take them wherever they may want to go.