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How to Combat Childhood Obesity Without Putting Your Child on a Diet

Researchers found that one in six kids and teens are now obese -- and that this rate has not budged from the year prior. But what, as parents, can we do to help our kids maintain a healthy weight -- to not become a statistic?
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So maybe you've heard about this whole childhood obesity epidemic. I kid -- a little attempt at levity. Because really, how could you not have? Lately, especially, it seems the news about how heavy and unhealthy kids are these days has been coming at us in one long, loud, continual stream. And no one seems to have The Answer for how to combat it. Think of the recent flack that the anti-obesity campaign in Atlanta got.

The idea was to shock parents into action, yet many felt that the harsh ads and billboards --depicting miserable-looking overweight kids -- only underscored the message to children that: You're fat, which makes you unacceptable. Not what a kid's self-esteem needs. And if a new government-sponsored study is any indication, the other avenues we've tried haven't worked, either. The researchers found that one in six kids and teens are now obese -- and that this rate has not budged from the year prior. (Good that it hasn't gone up!)

But what else, as parents, can we do to help our kids maintain a healthy weight -- to not become a statistic? I have a few ideas:

  1. Don't focus on lowering your child's weight (even if she or he needs to lose weight). Doctors who specialize in obesity in children say the best scenario is to let kids "grow into their weight" instead of dropping it. Unlike adults, they get taller every day. And if they can manage to stay at the same weight while they're growing, they will automatically trim down with time--without the shame and pressure of being put on a diet.

  • Bring back the habit of eating at home. Not only does it let you oversee what your child eats (what everyone eats, actually) it strengthens your bond as a family. Try some of my Sneaky Chef recipes to entice kids into eating healthier - plus researchers at Penn State have found that "by adding puréed vegetables to favorite foods, preschool children consumed nearly twice as many vegetables and 11 percent fewer calories over the course of a day."
  • Use smaller plates--for instantly smaller portions. Avoid the "family style" method when serving. If huge platters are plunked on the table, it's too easy to add more and more to the plate without even thinking about it (exception: serve bowls of veggies family-style).
  • Don't make any food "forbidden fruit." Even double chocolate chip ice cream. Your child will just want it all the more. Instead, allow not-so-great foods (yes, even soda and candy) in very modest amounts. Certainly not every day, but not so rarely that your child's desire grows out of hand and they scarf it down at friends' houses. Forbidding anything outright causes most of us to want it all the more.
  • Teach your child to listen to his body and hunger cues. Kids are born with a natural ability to do this. But often as they get older--and as their parents bug them to "take two more bites" or become members of the "clean plate club" --they lose touch with it. Like many adults, kids will often eat because they're bored, sad or need comfort. Talk about the importance of eating slowly, putting the fork down between bites -- and for good when they've had enough.
  • But do make sure your child feels satisfied once he's eaten. Nothing encourages overeating more than deprivation. Packing kids' faves like spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna with lots of hidden veggies and whole grains are designed to keep bellies feeling fuller, longer.
  • Model healthy behavior. This might be the most important rule. When the whole family decides to improve their diet, the kids follow suit. Monkey see, monkey do.
  • Encourage activity. (Notice I didn't say "fitness.") Exercise is important, but for kids what's crucial is making it fun and not feeling like some form of punishment. Think: Bike rides, family Xbox Kinect night, after-dinner walks with the dog. Even little things, like subbing a big air-filled ball for the computer chair, can go a long way. And definitely limit screen time. Research shows kids spend about 8 hours a day in front of electronic devices like computers, TVs and cell phones. The more you limit it, the more your child is forced to find another way (soccer with the neighbor, a game of hide and seek with his sister) to entertain himself.