For parents of children with weight problems, it can be a confusing situation. Should you restrict their food or just leave well enough alone and hope they grow out of it? The key is to help your children adopt healthful habits that will stay with them through life.

A Growing Problem

Childhood weight problems often carry over into adulthood, and overweight adults are at greater risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Worse, conditions once associated only with adults, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a major risk factor for stroke and heart attacks), are now increasingly being found in some children and adolescents.

Contributing Factors

Several factors may be to blame. In rare cases, a medical problem may be the cause. If you suspect your child has a weight problem or is developing one, take him to the doctor for a full exam.

The most common factors in childhood obesity may include the following:

Lack of Exercise

Experts blame too much television, computer time, and video games, which take away time from doing physical activity.

Consuming Too Many Calories

Today's time-pressed families are relying more and more on convenience foods and fast foods, many of which are high in calories, especially from carbohydrates. High fat intake from burgers, fries, and pizza plays a role, but many kids are also gulping down hundreds of calories a day in the form of sodas, sports drinks, and sweetened juice drinks.

Overly-large serving portions at both restaurants and at home have also likely played a role. Additionally, many schools may not provide healthy lunches.

Family History/Genetics

Research has shown that children with overweight parents and/or siblings are more likely to be overweight themselves. While genes may play a role, it may also be that parents pass on unhealthful behaviors and habits to their children.

Dos and Don'ts for Parents

The best advice for parents is to help your kids eat healthfully, be active, and build self-esteem.

Here are some dos and don'ts to help you:

  • Be supportive. Kids need to know that you love and respect them unconditionally and that their weight does not define their self-worth. Kids who feel loved and confident are more likely to be able to make positive lifestyle changes and feel good about themselves while they are doing it.
  • Don't be the "food police." Watching over your kids like a hawk and creating a list of "forbidden foods" is likely to backfire. Kids whose diets are severely restricted will often resort to sneaking food and even binging in private.
  • Teach your children about balanced nutrition. The whole family should have a basic understanding of what constitutes a healthful diet. If you need help, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian.
  • Involve the children in shopping, menu planning, and cooking. It is helpful for kids to be involved and feel like they have some control over their diet.
  • Have several healthy snacks on hand. It is normal for kids to get hungry between meals. Healthful snacks will keep them going throughout the day. Kid-friendly choices include apple slices with peanut butter, yogurt with granola, dried fruit and nuts, and pre-cut vegetable sticks with low-fat dip.
  • Don't use food as punishment or reward. Kids should understand that food is fuel for a healthy body, as well as a source of pleasure. Associating food with punishment or reward may distort children's views of the role of food in their lives.
  • Have your kids eat their meals and snacks at the table. Kids (and adults) who eat while watching TV or doing other activities are more likely to overeat because they are not paying attention to how much they are eating.
  • Encourage physical activity. This may be one of the most important things you can do for your kids. Regular exercise is vital to weight control, as well as to health. While team sports or community activity programs are great, it is also a good idea for parents to exercise with their kids and make it a family affair, such as walks after school or weekend hikes.
  • Limit TV/computer time. Set reasonable limits to how long your children can sit in front of the television or the computer.
  • Don't give your children any weight-loss remedies or medicines. Many are not safe for children and could cause harmful side effects. Talk to the pediatrician before giving any weight-loss medicine.
  • Encourage your child to get plenty of sleep. Not getting enough sleep may increase your child's risk of obesity. Depending on your child's age, he may need 9-11 hours of sleep each night.

Healthful Habits for Life

The best advice for any family is to eat and enjoy healthful food together and to exercise together. Kids who learn healthful behaviors as part of a family lifestyle are much more likely to continue those healthful habits throughout their lives.