Kids’ bodies are constantly growing and changing. Although weight gain and growth spurts are a natural part of a child’s development, excessive weight gain for boys or girls at various life stages should be a red flag for parents — especially with childhood obesity rates on the rise.
So how can parents know whether their child’s excess weight is a natural growth phase or if it’s cause for concern?
“If you’re worried about your child putting on extra weight, the first thing to do is talk with your pediatrician about it,” says David Levine, MD, a pediatrician with Atlantic Health System who cares for patients until 21 years of age. “This is a serious issue that is treatable, even preventable, and pediatricians are the first line of defense. Older children who remain overweight or obese are likely to stay that way into adulthood, which puts them at greater risk for disease.”
Reading the Growth Chart
Pediatricians use a growth chart that tracks a child’s height and weight over time, as well as their body mass index (BMI). At each annual visit, they mark where your child lands on the growth chart to determine if there’s reason for concern about a child’s weight reaching an unhealthy range.
“In many cases, there’s no need for worry because not all children who carry extra pounds are overweight,” says Dr. Levine. “For some kids, the problem is simply too much in and not enough out, but sometimes it is more complicated than that and genetics can play a role.”
Learning About Nutrition
To avoid the health concerns that creep up as kids mature, it’s important to help them establish healthy eating habits at a young age. Here are a few tips that make for a successful — and healthful — mealtime.
- Serve your family real food and do your best to avoid processed food products, which means loading your child’s plate with nutrient-dense proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Limit calories from added sugars, saturated fats, and salt.
- Don’t make a separate kid’s dinner of chicken nuggets and starchy mac and cheese. Stand firm on this. Share one meal together as a family so your children develop well-rounded eating habits.
- Cook at home as much as possible. Bring your child to the grocery store and teach them how to choose healthy options. Be sure to avoid loading up on processed food products.
- To control portion sizes, eyeball appropriate amounts rather than measuring them out, which can lead to undue stress for parents and kids. Serve meals on smaller plates that fill up quickly.
- Slow down mealtime. Eating slowly helps improve digestion and weight loss and leaves us feeling full and satisfied. Eating together at the table rather than at the television or a phone screen also helps.
“A great place to start is to limit fast food and sugary drinks,” says Dr. Levine. “And remember that dessert shouldn’t be an everyday expectation unless it’s fruit.”
Get the Family Moving
Kids take their cues from their parents, so make exercise a family routine. To raise active kids and keep screen time to a minimum, ride bikes after dinner, play a little basketball in the driveway, walk the dog together, or play a board game. All of this will help limit screen time and encourage new interests and habits.
Next-Level Weight Loss Options
If these home-grown solutions don’t slow a child’s weight gain, your pediatrician may check your child’s cholesterol and blood sugar.
If necessary, weight loss medications are available for children over the age of 12. For morbidly obese children with a BMI over 40, surgical intervention may also be considered.
Be Proactive About Their Health
Regular visits to the pediatrician help families support kids through their healthy journey to adulthood. Goryeb Children’s Hospital's pediatric endocrinology team offers Kid-Fit, which uses physical activity, nutrition, and behavioral modifications to help overweight children and adolescents make healthier lifestyle choices.