- Is my child overweight?
- Why is my child overweight?
- Why is it that my child is overweight but eats healthy?
- How to lose weight for kids?
- How to help overweight children?
- How to help my overweight teenager lose weight?
- Things not to say to your overweight child
If you’re wondering “Is my child overweight?” rest assured that you are not alone in having concerns about your child’s weight. Childhood obesity is on the rise in England year on year. 14% of children in Reception class at school are obese in the UK and 13.3% more are overweight in 2020/2021.
We’ve no doubt that over a year of families being told to stay at home in the UK hasn’t helped matters. If you’re concerned about having a fat child, childhood or teenage obesity, we’ve got the tools to help you better understand your child’s weight and proactive tips to help.
Is my child overweight?
Child weight gain is a normal part of growth in young children. Children seem to have an insatiable appetite for snacks and are continually growing out of their clothes, so some weight gain is par for the course. However, you may have seen your child compared with their class at school and that has raised the question in your mind if you have an overweight child.
The UK government recommends using a BMI calculator as a starting point to find out if you have an overweight child. The NHS do acknowledge that BMI does have its limitations, specifically that it cannot tell the difference between fat, muscle and bone. The drawbacks of BMI in children, particularly those under nine years old are discussed here. So while BMI may give you an idea of where your child’s weight is compared to others, it is not definitive.
You may wish to have a follow-up conversation with your child’s GP. They will have experience discussing weight gain in children, plus may offer advice on how to lose weight for kids.
Why is my child overweight?
Let’s not overcomplicate it, overweight kids tweens and teens are overweight as the result of one or a combination of the following:
- Lack of physical activity
- Eating habits
- Medical condition
- Hormone problem
Being overweight can run in families, but usually not due to genetics but instead because of shared behaviours in a household.
Why is it that my child is overweight but eats healthy?
Lots of parents are left baffled by rapid weight gain in kids because they believe that they feed their children a well-balanced diet. First of all, the word ‘healthy’ is subjective which is why there are so many opinions on what is a healthy diet. If you firmly believe that your child’s diet is well-balanced then keep a food diary of your child's meals and snacks in detail and bring this to a GP or a dietician for a second opinion. You shouldn’t make your child aware that you are recording their food intake at the time to avoid them feeling scrutinised. The government also provides advice on meal plans for UK families here.
If you and your GP are satisfied that your child’s diet and portion size is adequate then reconsider the four points that we have already written about. You can go through them by process of elimination since eating habits are only part of the story. Is your child getting enough exercise every day? This can be just running around the park, riding their scooter home from school, dancing in the living room or kicking a football in the garden.
If both your child’s diet and activity are on similar levels to children their age but your child continues to rapidly gain weight then it is time to seek a second opinion from your GP to explore a possible medical condition or hormone problem. Come to the appointment prepared with your child’s food diary including activity and exercise daily to advocate for your child in the best way possible.
How to lose weight for kids?
Weight loss happens when someone consistently consumes fewer calories than they burn each day. This is true for kids too but doesn’t mean that you should start counting your kid's calories. There is a better approach.
If it has been confirmed by a GP that your child is overweight and would benefit from losing weight, they will likely give you advice on diet and exercise but ultimately it is up to you to decide what boundaries to set around these two factors.
As a general rule, it’s far better to focus on including an abundance of nutritious foods that your child can have as much of as they please, rather than telling your child that you are restricting foods.
For example, telling your child that they can “only have chips only once a week” or “a takeaway on the weekend only if you eat your broccoli now” is reinforcing a harmful message to your child that eating some food is a chore and that eating other foods has to be earned.
Incorporate more activity into your child’s day in a way that suits your schedule and budget. Children have plenty of energy and there are many ways to burn through that whether it’s going to an after school sports club or making a habit of walking to more places rather than driving.
How to help overweight children?
There is a correlation between being an overweight child and an obese teenager. Since there are increased physical and mental health risks in those with obesity, let’s look at how we can best help overweight children.
- Talk - Discussions of body image and feelings should always be welcome between children and parents. The emphasis needs to be on self-acceptance and your child knowing that their worth and your love have nothing to do with their weight.
- Example - It’s never too late to instil habits for helping an overweight child, and the best approach is to make changes together as a family. This includes making regular, balanced meals and ensuring fun active time together away from screens.
- Action - Overweight children in Primary school do not need their parents to draw attention to the fact that there are concerns about their weight. Integrate the lifestyle changes naturally, leading the change consistently and involve your child where possible too. For example, children love to help in the kitchen and maybe your child has ideas of their own about a new sport they’d like to take up.
If you’re making big lifestyle changes at home to facilitate your child’s weight loss, it is very normal to have resistance from your child at first and they will likely test the boundaries. Keep the approach to changes light and positive, focus on fun and abundance, not restrictive diets. Instead of saying “no you can’t eat that.” Try offering a closed option “You can eat this or this, which one do you want?”
How to help my overweight teenager lose weight?
Communicating with teenagers can feel like walking on eggshells at the best of times. You can help your overweight teenager by approaching the matter with sensitivity but also boundaries. Keep in mind that it is our parents first who shape how we feel about our bodies including how we speak about ourselves.
Start by encouraging conversations about body image, granted this may be easier for an overweight teenage girl to speak openly about than a teenage boy.
Do not dismiss the word ‘fat’ if your teenager brings it up. Fat is a descriptor like tall and short. Fat is not a measure of worth, talent, beauty or value. Fat is not a bad word. If your teenager refers to themself as fat, it is very important not to reply with “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful”. This immediately tells your teen that it is not possible for them to be both fat and beautiful which is a crushing blow to a teen's self-esteem if they identify themselves as fat. Instead, if your teen says that they are fat try asking them: “Why do you think that?” “How does that make you feel?”
Did your parents ever say a negative comment about your appearance that has stuck with you? No doubt they were just parenting you with the norms of the time and doing what they thought was best. Since we know that there is a very thin line between “tough-love” and fat-shaming, you do need to be conscious that losing weight for your teenager isn’t about them losing weight to feel valued or accepted.
Even if your overweight teenager is experiencing health issues related to their weight or has expressed that they’d like to lose weight, still be prepared for resistance to any lifestyle changes that you might try to implement.
Teenagers have a lot more independence than children so we cannot monitor their every move or mouthful. Be persistent, lead by example and focus on positive changes. This is never about policing what they have eaten, interrogating or accusing a teenager. Productive weight loss for teens is not about restrictive meal plans, counting calories or kilograms.
Things not to say to your overweight child
-Do not refer to foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This can lead to feelings of shame and disordered eating. Ultimately all food is fuel, you can distinguish food by how you feel after you’ve eaten it. For example, we all know that sleepy feeling after eating a bowl of spaghetti.
- Do not make any specific weight goals for your child nor subject your child to frequent weigh-ins. This puts pressure on your child and detracts from the fact that their weight loss is about a lifestyle change. You’ll see the changes with your own eyes.
- Do not tell your child that they will feel happier or allude to them being better if they were a certain weight. This reinforces harmful fatphobic ideas that one's happiness and worthiness are determined by one's weight. This is a false narrative that children and teens are bombarded with already.
Ultimately, an overweight child is going to develop a positive relationship with food and their own body image if their caregivers adopt a consistent and holistic approach that does not single them out in the household as needing different treatment from their siblings. A group effort will create long-lasting and successfully implemented lifestyle changes.