Dear Mr. Dad: Our son is only 10, but he is already extremely overweight. He loves food and we don’t want to deny him his favorite dishes, but we’re starting to get worried about his health. What should we do?

A: You’re absolutely right to be concerned. Obesity in this country is a huge problem. And it’s getting bigger by the day. Back in the 1960s, fewer than one in ten kids 6-19 were considered overweight. Today it’s more than one in three. Put a little differently, when you were growing up, the average child drank three glasses of milk for every one of soda. Today, kids are drinking twice as much soda as milk.

As you probably know, obesity poses some pretty serious health risks: heart disease and diabetes are just two of the biggies, so it’s important that you act now. Obese children tend to become obese—and unhealthy—adults.

Changing your son’s diet and making sure he gets plenty of exercise are essential steps. But they may not be enough. To start with, he may have a medical condition such as thyroid dysfunction, that’s making him put on weight. So your first step should be a visit to your son’s pediatrician to rule out any physical issues. Once that’s done, he or she will probably refer you to a nutritionist, who will put together an age-appropriate, healthy diet for your son.

You’ve heard the saying: “It’s not what you eat, but what’s eating you,” right? Well, your son may be overeating for reasons other than he loves your grandmother’s brownie recipe. People of all ages—kids included—often seek comfort in food to fill in emotional voids in their lives. Those could be as simple as boredom or as complex as depression. So if there are no physical causes behind your son’s weight gain, ask the pediatrician to help figure out what’s really eating your son.

In the meantime…

  • Explain to your child why being overweight is bad for him. Sure, it’s about looks, but, more importantly, it’s about staying healthy. Make sure you’re leading by example. If your diet and exercise habit leave something to be desired, your anti-obesity arguments will be lost on him. This could be the perfect time to get the whole family on a healthier track.
  • Make sure your fridge and pantry are always stocked with healthy munchies (granola bars, unsalted nuts, sliced veggies) that won’t put on those extra pounds.
  • As a family, avoid foods full of saturated and trans fats, and choose a diet rich in grains, vegetables and fruits, making sure the foods you serve provide enough calcium and iron kids your son’s age need. This kind of diet will benefit everyone in the family.
  • Practice portion control. Serve enough to satisfy hunger but resist the urge to dish out second helpings. Studies show that the bigger the helping, the more people eat.
  • You don’t have to give up deserts, but save them for special occasions. Instead, serve other foods that will satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth without packing in the calories, such as fresh fruit or frozen yogurt.
  • Find a regular physical activity your son will enjoy, whether it’s playing ball or biking. You may also want to do more physical things as a family so your son won’t feel like he’s being singled out. Hopefully the new diet and exercise routine will be just the first steps on the way towards developing healthy habits that will serve you all well in the future.