Everyone loves a cuddly toddler, but as your child gets older, his weight can start to affect his quality of life. Overweight children are more likely to grow into overweight adults, with health risks including diabetes, asthma and problems with the joints and bones. The risks get worse throughout life, with an increased chance of high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, osteoarthritis and certain cancers in adulthood. And once he’s of school age, being overweight can have a psychological impact on your child, leading to low self-esteem, teasing or bullying and embarrassment when playing games or sports.
What causes obesity?
Obesity is mainly caused by two factors: an unhealthy diet and insufficient exercise. It’s rare for there to be a genetic disease leading to obesity; in many cases, it’s down to a family history of being overweight.
Spotting the signs
Conventional weight measures, such as the body mass index (BMI), are not appropriate for children, so don’t rely on the scales alone to tell you if your child is overweight. Signs that he may be prone to weight problems include:
- Having an imbalanced diet, with, for example, too many carbs and fatty foods and not enough fruit and veg
- Snacking on junk food between meals
- Breathlessness after exercise
If you think your child may be overweight, your health visitor, practice nurse or GP can assess his weight and provide information and advice. You can also track his weight and height against the charts in his red book, which go from birth up to 20 years of age, or use the NHS online calculator, which is suitable for children aged two and above.
What if your child is overweight?
Children shouldn’t be put on weight-loss diets, unless on the advice of a healthcare professional. Most overweight children will grow into their ideal weight as they get taller, but it’s nevertheless important to make some lifestyle changes to ensure that he doesn’t gain more weight than is necessary.
- Encourage a balanced diet, with more home cooked foods and fewer ready meals and processed foods, which can be high in fat and sugar
- Ensure he gets plenty of exercise, for example with regular family walks or bike rides or a class in a sport he enjoys, like football, dance or swimming
- Reduce the amount of time he spends playing computer games and watching TV
- Never use food as a reward; instead, play with him, give him praise and attention or offer non-food treats like a comic or a special outing
- Get him interested in healthy food, for example by encouraging him to help you prepare meals or tend a vegetable patch
- Model good food and exercise habits yourself: let him see you making healthy food choices and getting active
Whatever your child’s weight, his daily diet should include five or more servings of a variety of fruit and veg, plenty of starchy foods like potatoes, pasta, rice, bread or cereals, and full-fat dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, fromage frais or cheese. Low-fat dairy products like semi-skimmed milk aren’t recommended for under fives, but ask your health visitor for advice if you think your child would benefit from lower fat alternatives. Savoury and sweet snacks like crisps, biscuits and chocolate should be limited, as should sugary drinks.
Children often need persuasion to eat fruit and vegetables, particularly if they’ve developed a taste for sugary or high fat snacks. Don’t get stressed if your child is resisting fruit and veg, but keep offering a healthy diet, limiting access to high fat and high calorie foods. Children’s tastes change over time, and what he doesn’t like today may, with patience and perseverance, become a favourite later on.