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Helping Your Child Reach A Healthy Weight

The modern lifestyle is all about convenience. Our entertainment is delivered to our screens, and our food is often just as convenient, whether it's bought on the go, delivered to our door, or heated in the microwave. All of this convenience makes life a lot easier, but it also has some negative effects on our lives. We often see those impacts in the numbers on a scale, or the inches gained all around.

Unfortunately, our children feel this impact as much as we do. One out of three children in the US is by medical standards overweight or obese. Less common but just as vital is the case of underweight children, who sometimes suffer from serious eating disorders.

Too Much Weight
Being overweight or obese can have serious implications on health, from bone and joint problems to cardiovascular risk factors that include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Asthma symptoms and sleep disorders can worsen when a child is overweight. There may be emotional issues as well, such as low self-esteem, stress, or depression.

Responding to weight problems is not just a matter of feeding children less. Reducing food intake can be harmful to a growing child who needs all the essential nutrients for the brain and the body to develop properly.

Many contributing factors lead to becoming overweight, including genetics, diet, lifestyle, lack of exercise. There can also be medical causes, and one must determine this through a consultation with a medical practitioner. A holistic approach to the issue that involves the whole family adopting a healthy lifestyle change may be more effective, and more beneficial to everyone's general health.

Eating and Lifestyle Habits
It's important to get the whole family on board the new lifestyle changes rather than singling out a child. After all, kids learn by example, and if the parents are willing to take the lead in taking on healthy habits, the kids will follow suit.

Limit Screen Time
One of the biggest culprits for supporting a more sedentary lifestyle is screen time, whether TV, video consoles or hand-held devices. Most children today spend their after school hours in front of a screen, up to 7 hours a day when one includes computer time and video games. There is a direct correlation between time spent in front of a TV and weight gain.[1] The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict limits on the time that children and adolescents spend in front of screens.[2]

So take the TV out of the bedroom and out of the dining room as well. Children (and adults too!) are less likely to overeat when they focus on the meal and the conversation around the family dinner table rather than mindlessly watching a TV show. Find ways to limit screen time, whether that includes allowing access to the Internet for schoolwork only on weekdays, or limiting video game time to weekends.

Redefine the Happy Meal
Although we may enjoy the convenience of take-out or fast food, there are many hidden additives and preservatives in ready-made food as well as extra calories in fast food. The less processed food is—the closer food is to its natural state—the better and healthier it is for us. If time is a key constraint, look for healthy meal plans online and spend one day a week preparing these dishes with the whole family. Grill, steam or bake lean meats and fish rather than deep-fry. Teach the kids how to prepare healthy snacks, or get used to snacking on vegetables and fruit (but avoid or lessen fruit that is high in sugar). Offer a side salad to the main dish rather than a serving of french fries.

Make a habit of choosing healthy options
Take the kids along for grocery shopping, and show them how to make healthier purchases—vegetables, fruit, and nuts instead of chips, herbs and spices instead of pre-prepared, fat-laden dressings or sauces, water and low-fat or soy/nut milk instead of sugary drinks and juices. Making these healthy options available for them at home will make it easier for them to stay on track and develop the habit of healthful eating.

Stop Drinking Sugar
Sugar-laden drinks are a major source of calorie intake for Americans of all ages, and contribute virtually nothing to nutrition. The habit can be hard to break, especially for children (and adults) accustomed to having continuous access to soda, but one of the best overall choices you can make for your family's health is to reduce or eliminate your consumption of sweetened drinks. Many people find that the craving passes with time and that many popular drinks become uncomfortably sweet after some time away from them. The healthiest and cheapest drink you can place on your table is water.

Portion size
Using smaller plates at home can increase awareness of healthy portion sizes. Don't require membership in the "clean plate club." Teach kids to listen to their limits by allowing them to eat only when they are hungry, and to eat only until they are satisfied. For younger children, put small amounts of food on their plates first, and then give them more if they ask for it.

Don't make food a reward for good behavior
Instead, reward milestones or good behavior with something other than food or a sweet treat, such as more playtime or a fun family vacation, or something they want, such as a good book or educational toy. On the flipside, it is also not advisable to label certain food as "bad," because this might create an addiction to that particular item in the present or the future.

Avoid fad diets
There are thousands of people out there looking to sell you the magic trick for weight control, whether for your kids or yourself. They make good money at it, but they rarely help anyone. Most fad diets have little scientific basis, and many are actively harmful. Controlling weight and keeping your family healthy isn't about "going on a diet," it's about long-term changes in diet and lifestyle. There's no great secret to it: eat less, eat smart, and exercise more sums it up. You don't need to shop for the latest overhyped "superfood" or drop into madly overpriced health-food stores, either. Focus on eating a diverse diet that emphasizes fresh local products, avoid processed food and sweets, especially sweet drinks, get regular exercise and watch the result!

You've got to move it
Parents can schedule more physical activity during the week, both for themselves and as a family. For younger kids, schedule more frequent playtime outdoors (they will love that!). Go biking or hiking around the neighborhood or in nearby parks and forests as a family. Encourage participation in sports, or learning a new skill like dancing or rock climbing. You don't need a gym membership to get fit: there are many exercise programs available free!

Helping Underweight Children
Only 3.5% of children are considered underweight[3], which sounds like less of a problem than the more common challenge of obesity. That does not make this any less a problem: the affected children can face serious and even life-threatening health problems. Helping an underweight child gain weight can be trickier than helping a child lose weight. It is always best to consult a doctor first to get to the cause of a child's being underweight. Underweight kids may need help: low weight can be a sign of malnutrition, which can affect present and future academic achievement and cause behavioral problems and physical inactivity. Of course, some adequately nourished children just don't gain weight, and if your doctor says there's no problem, there probably isn't!

Should there be no medical reasons for a child to be underweight, it may be surprising to note that many of the suggestions aimed at weight loss can also help a child gain weight in a healthy way.

Healthy calories versus empty calories
Providing food that is rich in nutrients is the best way to help your growing child develop properly. Focus on providing healthy, high-calorie sources of protein (ex: eggs, nut butters, whole milk, and yogurt), carbohydrates (ex: whole wheat bread, red or brown rice) and fat (ex: avocados, hummus, and bean dips).

Encourage healthy snacking
Snacks can be healthy as well as convenient. Smoothies are a great breakfast option, combining fruit, yogurt, flaxseed or coconut oil and seeds. Trail mix or granola with dried fruit make a healthy snack with or without yogurt. Avocados can be turned into guacamole or added to a fruit smoothie. Vegetable crudités go well with hummus and bean dips.

Little stomachs fill easily, even with fluids. Try to delay their drinking water or milk until after they've eaten their meal, so they don't get full from drinking.

Enjoy your food and each other
Involve your kids in preparing healthy snacks and meals. Kids love responsibility, and it's a chance for them to learn about healthy eating. Give mealtimes importance by eating all meals seated at the dining table rather than "on the go."

Avoid screen time during meals. Turn the TV and other gadgets off before eating. Being truly present for each other during mealtimes make eating a pleasure rather than a chore.

Work up an appetite!
Adding physical activity or play times to your child's day may burn more calories, but it will also have the added benefit of increasing appetite. You don't have to force a hungry child to eat. Just make sure he or she doesn't fill up with water right before the meal.

Conclusion
Adopting a healthier lifestyle can become an enjoyable family affair. Helping your children build up the habits of eating healthy food, exercising and moving more, and spending less time in front of the screen affects both their present well-being and their future happiness as well. Remember that the habits built in childhood tend to endure into adulthood. A solid foundation in healthy living is one of the most important legacies you can leave to your children!