Kids and weight is a sensitive subject for the whole family. And just as with adults, when it comes to kids and weight, lifestyle and habits matters more than size. Learn gentle, everyday strategies you can implement with your kids to encourage the long-term healthy habits that will keep their body strong and healthy for a lifetime.
What is a Healthy Weight for Kids?
Kids grow at different rates with varying amounts of body fat depending on their age and sex. One way to determine kids weight status is to calculate their body mass index (BMI).
Body Mass Index (BMI) is weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. For kids and teens, BMI is age- and sex-specific and is often referred to as BMI-for-age. With kids, doctors use percentiles, instead of a single number, to show how your child’s BMI compares to other kids of their age and sex.
These are the BMI-for-age categories:
- Underweight: <5th percentile
- Healthy weight: 5th to 84th percentile
- Overweight: 85th to 94th percentile
- Obese: 95th percentile or greater
For kids and teens, BMI is just used as a screening tool for potential weight and health-related issues. If your child has a high BMI for their age and sex, you will want a health care provider to do some further assessment to determine if excess fat is a problem.
Approach Talking about Weight Sensitively
If your child is overweight, chances are you want to help them get healthy. Weight loss in kids is tricky for a lot of reasons. Being overweight is a psychologically loaded issue for kids: Self-esteem, self-worth, and popularity are all wrapped up in this. It is important to help kids focus on the health aspects of weight and not on appearance. Being healthy is more about taking care of our bodies and feeling good rather than looking good.
When kids are young, parents are responsible for providing an environment that helps kids have a lifestyle that is beneficial to their health. Some high level ways to create an positive and healthy home environment are:
- Be a positive role model for healthy eating and being active
- Provide regular meal and snack times that include healthy foods
- Set boundaries with screen time
- Involve the whole family in fun physical activities.
- Help your kids develop and maintain a positive body image.
What are some common reasons for kids being overweight?
The first step for change is knowing why there is a problem in the first place. It is important to take a step back and really try to look at factors that may be contributing to your child’s weight and overall health. Some common factors are:
- Poor Eating Habits (including emotional eating)
- Lack of Physical Activity
- Overall Diet
Top Healthy Habits for a Healthy Weight
- Undistracted Eating
- Turn off screens at meal time and help kids focus on their food by being present. Talk to them about what their food tastes like. Ask your kids what it feels like to be very hungry, a little bit hungry, comfortably full and uncomfortably full. Discuss the importance of trusting and listening to internal body cues.
- Adequate Sleep
- Tired kids are cranky and moody (kind of like tired adults). It is a lot harder to make healthy choices like exercising or eating veggies when you feel tired and sluggish. Bedtime can get hard as kids get older, but it’s important to set a bedtime routine and stick with it. About an hour before lights out, switch off TVs, phones, computers, and video games. Give your kids something relaxing to do to help them wind down.
- Child-size portions
- Sometimes we give our kids way more food than they actually need or want. A good rule of thumb is to start meals with small servings and let them ask for more if they are still hungry. Definitely don’t make your kids finish everything on their plate. Also, try not to use adult-size plates for younger kids. Studies show that we eat less from smaller plates.
- Less screen time
- To help kids cut back, don’t focus on what your kids can’t do but rather on what they can do. Instead of telling them they can’t watch T.V., make a list of activities that they can do if they feel bored. Then let them pick something from that list.
- Get the entire family on board
- Any changes you want to make will be much more accepted if the entire family is participating. If the entire family is doing something active, it is a lot more motivating to participate.
- Eat Meals Together and make it a special time
- Eating more meals together can make a big difference in your family’s health. Hundreds of studies have indicated the big impact on kids health that family dinners have. When you cook at home, you control the menu and ingredients, so it’s easier for everyone to eat healthy.
- Fill kids up on fruits and veggies
- Serve juicy, crunchy, delicious fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack. They have so much nutrition in them and can be really satisfying. Make this the basis of your kids diet.
- Be active
- Kids should get at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity most days of the week. Your kids watch what you do and will notice if you are active. You can always have your kids join you in being active – walking outside, playing sports in the backyard, swimming and going for a bike ride.
- Eliminate sugary drinks including juice and encourage lots of water
- Drinking too much juice, soda, or fruit drinks can decrease your child’s appetite for other more nutritious foods. They will still get a lot of calories, but they will mostly be from sugars or carbohydrates and lack sufficient protein, which can contribute to a poorly balanced diet.
- Limit empty calorie foods
- It is a lot easier to make good choices if there are more healthy options to choose from. If your fridge and pantry are stocked with nutritious stuff, you won’t have to worry about keeping kids away from junk food. Keep portions of cut-up fruits and veggies, trail mix, and yogurt easy for kids to grab.
- Don’t forbid foods or make food a reward
- Telling your child they can’t eat ever eat a specific food, only makes them want to eat that food more. Instead of saying no to foods that your kids love to eat that are more of a treat, limit the portion size. Use non-food rewards for good behavior – an special date with mom or dad, stickers, or a day off of chores.
- Watch your language
- Be careful how you talk about your own body, or commenting on how others look. Keep your focus on making your kids feel good in their own body.
- Be Consistent
- Helping set up a good relationship with food early on is the very best thing you can do for your child. This takes a lot of consistency and a lot of time. Giving your kids tools to help them make their own good decisions and teaching them healthy habits will set them up for a healthy life when they leave your house. The best focus is to help your kids see that they gain something positive by having healthy habits.
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I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie