Dear Mr. Dad: The statistics on childhood obesity and all the associated health risks seem to get worse every day. I know I shouldn’t admit it, but banning all sugar and junk food from our diet is just not going to work in our family. Short of that, aren’t there some simpler things we can do to reduce the chances that our children will become fat?
A: I understand your point about the impracticality of trying to completely give up sugar and junk food. But it almost sounds like you’re looking for a magic pill that will immunize your kids from putting on too much weight. Sad to say, there isn’t anything like that. Yet. I’m sure scientists around the world are frantically working towards a diet pill like that, because whoever gets there first will make billions. That said, there are some relatively simple, non-magical things you can do to reduce your children’s obesity risk.
- Set a good example. As parents, we all know that our kids are watching every move we make. If you eat a lot of junk food and high-fat snacks, your kids will take that as an invitation to do the same. And they will. Ideally, you and your family would give up your double-cheeseburger and chocolate bars. While an occasional one probably won’t do you much harm, it certainly isn’t doing you much good either. However, since going cold turkey—which is a much healthier snack—isn’t a viable option for your family, you need to focus on moderation. (I don’t mean to pick on you. After a little waterboarding, most parents would confess to having stopped at a drive-through fast food place under pressure from a grumpy, hungry family, or just because it was more convenient than cooking a meal at home.)
- Talk about weight—but not too much. There are so many images of overweight people that a lot of children (and adults) have come to see it as normal. It isn’t—or at least it shouldn’t be. So it’s important to talk with your kids about weight issues. And those discussions need to be positive. A recent study found that children whose parents tell them to go on a diet and lose weight tend to adopt unhealthy weight management behavior such as using laxatives or fasting. But when parents talked to the kids about good food choices and healthy eating habits, the children were half as likely to adopt those dangerous dieting techniques.
- Quit the “Clean Plate Club.” Telling children that they should finish everything on their plate (whether to avoid wasting food or out of respect for hungry children in India) teaches them to ignore their body’s signals to stop eating. If they leave some food on their plate, okay. Just make sure there are plenty of fruits and/or veggies around and don’t let them get into the habit of reaching for the snacks instead.
- Think small. When food is served from huge containers, people tend to take—and eat—more of it. This applies equally to Costco-size boxes of cereal and homemade meals. And the size of the plates or bowls we eat from makes a difference too. Several studies have found that when children serve themselves, they put a lot more food on bigger plates than on smaller ones.
- Get some exercise. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just as long as you do it every day. Exercising as a family is especially good because if one of you isn’t in the mood, the others can motivate him or her to get off the couch.