Parents of newborns quickly learn that measurement of their baby’s weight and length is an important part of each doctor visit. That’s because a child’s measurements tell us a lot about their general health. This is true for older children and adolescents as well. A weight that is appropriate for your child’s height and age remains an important indicator of overall health.
Unfortunately, our culture has developed some unhealthy ideas about weight and some equally unhealthy habits regarding diet and exercise. This article hopes to provide some common sense guidance for kids and their parents about how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is the best way to evaluate your weight compared to your height. There is a range of acceptable values for BMI because different individuals have different bone structures and a different degree of muscular development. Maintaining a BMI within the recommended range is one of the most important health goals.
For children: Body Mass Index (BMI) between 5-85% for child’s age
For adults or children who have finished growing: BMI 18-25
- Drink lots of water. Avoid juices, Gatorade, sodas, lemonade, and sweet tea. Even though juices are “natural” they contain a lot of sugar and calories. Diet or low-calorie drinks should be consumed only in moderation; aim for no more than 2 servings daily
- Eats lots of fruits and vegetables. Include fruits or vegetables at every meal. Try to include both fresh, raw vegetables and cooked vegetables. If you don’t like a lot of vegetables now, practice eating new types of vegetables 1-2 times a week. If you have a few favorite vegetables, include them in your meals often. Experiment with new ways to cook and serve vegetables.
- Eat or drink a calcium rich food 3-4 times a day. Skim or 1% milk and low-fat yogurt are great examples. If you avoid cow’s milk products, try Almond or soy milk products but make sure your selections are calcium and vitamin D fortified.
- Include some protein at each meal. Good sources of protein include dairy like milk or yogurt, legumes like beans or hummus, eggs or lean meats like chicken or turkey, fish, seafood. Eat beef, higher fat meats (including dark meat chicken or turkey) and processed meats (bacon, sausage, hotdogs) in small quantities and no more than a few times per week.
- When eating starches like bread, crackers, pasta and cereals, pick whole grain products as much as possible. For instance, choose whole wheat bread over white bread or brown rice over white rice.
- Reduce your intake of sugar as much as possible. Don’t eat dessert every day. Instead of bringing desserts home, consider going out for a single serving. When you make desserts at home, consider scaling the recipe down to provide only enough for 1 serving per person. Try fresh fruit after meals as a dessert alternative. Encourage people who care for your children to avoid giving them food rewards, especially rewards of candy or other sweets.
- Plan ahead to participate in 2-3 structured exercise activities each week. This could be a sports team, a dance class, martial arts class, swim lesson, water aerobics, family hikes, a fast walk with a friend, a yoga class or a trip to the gym. Make sure these events are on your calendar and plan other activities around them. Try learning a new skill or sport. Try different activities until you find a few you really enjoy. If you get bored of one type of activity, substitute a new one but commit to doing something!
- Make sure you are active every day. Unless you are sick or injured, you should move your body every day. First, turn off the TV and put down the electronics. Try walking to work or school, mowing the yard, doing housework, walking the dog, roller skating, ice skating, going bowling, playing in the park, walking at the mall, having a dance party in your living room. These activities don’t have to be a certain length or require you to change clothes or shower. Just find ways to get up and get moving.
Adequate sleep is important in achieving a healthy weight. Many research studies have shown that lack of sleep is associated with weight gain and failure to lose weight. Most children and adults need at least 8 hours of sleep each night. In general, if it is consistently hard for a child to wake up in the morning, they need to go to bed earlier.
If I need to improve my BMI, how quickly should I expect improvement?
If your BMI needs to improve, you should expect changes to occur very slowly. For children who are still growing, your BMI can improve even if you don’t lose weight. Children may be better off getting their weight and height measured only at the pediatrician during office visits. This can help children and their families focus on creating healthy habits rather than worrying about their weight. Change should be slow and gradual.
For adults or children who have stopped growing taller, expect to lose about ½ pound per week. Sometimes, you might lose more or less. It can help motivate you to weight yourself 1-2 times per week at the same time of day and keep a log of your measurements. Expect that it gets harder to lose weight as your total weight goes down. At the beginning of your weight loss efforts, changes in your eating habits will have more effect than exercise. However, as your weight improves, exercise becomes more and more important. Exercise increases your muscle mass and that increases your metabolism. Research shows that exercise is the most important factor in ensuring that you do not regain weight after you have lost it.
How to I help my child address self-esteem issues related to weight?
Weight can be a very stressful topic for persons of any age. Focusing on BMI instead of weight can reduce stress because it keeps patients from comparing their weight to the weight of their friends or family. Also, if measuring weight causes stress, it is ok to check measurements only at the pediatrician’s office during regular visits. Parents can help by talking about making changes to be healthier rather than discussing losing weight.
Children and teens need to find ways to be proud of their bodies and what their bodies can achieve. Playing sports or meeting other physical fitness goals can help. Try setting a goal to walk a certain distance of a famous trail like the Appalachian trail. Or maybe your family would like to participate in a 5K race or a short triathalon together. Learning a new skill like tennis or Tae Kwon Do can also build confidence.
Any of the providers at Triangle Pediatrics are happy to discuss issues related to weight, diet and exercise with your family. If some of these conversations need to take place without your children present, that’s OK too! We know that making changes to your eating and exercise habits can be hard but the health benefits are worth the effort. If you would like to make an appointment, please call us at 919-467-5543.