Overweight Preschooler: What Can I Do?

Unfortunately, especially in the United States and increasingly in other developing nations, young people are overweight. This is the result of many factors which include a reduction in physical activity and an increase in consumption of foods high in sugar and carbohydrates. We are seeing more and more overweight preschoolers.

As a parent, what can we do? We already know that parents’ pressure or shaming about weight can create long-term negative impacts upon a child, including struggles with anorexia or bulimia.

How can a parent encourage a child to live a healthy lifestyle without hurting them? In this article, we will talk about some of the ways that you can help your preschool-age child lose weight.

Help your child maintain a healthy weight by getting healthy yourself

First, rather than talking to the child about their weight or even being critical of them and their weight, a parent can make changes to their own lifestyle and to the household lifestyle for the benefit of the child. The parent can focus on modeling the appropriate behavior for the child in order to help the child learn how to take better care of him or herself as he grows up.

There’s no way that a child can learn about healthy eating and exercise in a home if they are surrounded by unhealthy food and sedentary family members. If you are overweight and you watch TV all day, this is what your child learns to do and learns to like.

I can’t say this is true in every case, but a family where the parents are active and enjoy doing active things, it is more likely that the children will follow suit without having to schedule or persuade them to do active things.

As a parent, we don’t want to be over controlling about weight and health. It is more of our job to be an educator and a guide for healthy ways to live.

All children are formed differently. Some of that is genetics and some of it is personality and choices. If our child is eating a healthy diet and is fairly active, we are doing our jobs, even if that child isn’t on track to becoming a swimsuit model.

Involve your child in shopping and food preparation

Next, I would involve the child in food shopping and preparation for the home. Rather than lecturing the child on what to eat and what not to eat, I would take the child to the supermarket and show them how it is that I pick out food that is appropriate for the family.

Food education is a critical component of healthy eating. A lot of people eat things without thinking about what it is made of or how many calories has. If they understood just how many calories was in something, they would not eat it in most cases.

Rather than telling a child that a food is bad or is going to make them fat, talk to them about the impact of corn syrup on the ultimate nutritional value of a product and suggest some delicious and healthier alternatives.

Does your child love pizza? Great. But instead of ordering pizza from the local pizza shop or buying frozen pizzas of low-quality, get the child involved in making her own pizza. Either make the pizza dough from scratch or purchase pizza dough that can be rolled out and made into do it yourself personal pizzas.

Learn how to make pizza sauce together and then let her spread it on her own food. Talk about cheese and how much cheese on a pizza makes a good pizza versus not, and experiment with using lots of cheese or less cheese. In my experience, less cheese is actually a better thing for pizza because too much cheese can become really thick and greasy and overwhelms the pie.

Let her browse for and select potential toppings for pizza and experiment with different options. Be creative, and tackle recipes that involve non-traditional ingredients such as Gorgonzola cheese and or pears, pesto, caramelized onions, or roasted chicken.

Does your child love macaroni and cheese? Teacher how to make it from scratch. She may not like it as much as Kraft macaroni and cheese at first, but she will learn that there are other options than just the box of pasta that cost less than a dollar. What you are hoping to create is an adult who shops carefully, cooks rather than eats fast food or frozen/processed food. 

Teach your child about making delicious and healthy smoothies. This can be a great way to learn how to fold in healthy food options into something that tastes like a treat. Experiment with adding spinach, chopped up nuts, oatmeal, kale, vegetable juices, sweet potatoes, and peas into a smoothie that also contains strawberries, bananas, peaches, mangoes, or other sweet tasting delicious fruits. I also add peanut butter or other nut butters to smoothies for a little bit of balance, and some fat and protein. Let her see you do this, and concoct various recipes together.

Teach your child about how vegetarians and vegans eat. You don’t have to encourage your child to become a vegetarian or a vegan, but learning how to cook delicious vegetarian or vegan options for food can be a great way for a child to learn how to eat more healthfully.

If a child is raised eating meat and potatoes, it is more likely that as an adult, he will default to the types of recipes that he is familiar with and knows. Teach him that tofu can be delicious, and how to make it delicious.

My mother is one of these individuals. She was raised in a Mexican household, eating primarily meat, refried beans, tortillas, and noodles. My grandmother didn’t like vegetables that much, so she did not prepare salads or other vegetable based dishes.

My mother is a grandmother now and in her 60s. It is only now, as she is working on losing weight and thinking about a healthy lifestyle so that she can live as long as possible, that is she is learning about how to cook vegetables and how to make them taste delicious. Her entire life, she thought the only way to cook vegetables was to steam them into a mushy mess or to deep fry them in lots of oil.

It is amazing to eat out with her at restaurants or to see her cook something and then her look of surprise when the vegetable-focused recipe turns out something that is actually quite delicious. When we come across a vegetarian dish that is not delicious, I remind her that it is not the vegetables that are at fault, but instead the preparation and that next time she should just order something different.

Don’t shame your overweight child or single him out

If your child is overweight, I would not be super aggressive about strictly limiting unhealthy foods over much. I especially wouldn’t single her out to be the only one who does not get ice cream for dessert while the rest of the family enjoys it. However, instead of just binging on ice cream as a family, if desert is going to happen, which it should occasionally in a healthy regular diet, make choices for a delicious dessert that are healthier than some of the other options. Ice cream tastes great, but perhaps strawberries and cream with a little bit of chocolate syrup would be a better option. You can also check out frozen yogurt over ice cream, dark chocolates over deep fried cake type desserts, or even make fruit based homemade ice creams with less sugar.

If you have a young child, you have a lot more control over what they eat and how much of it they eat. Try to avoid giving your child empty calories, and focus on giving them more fresh fruits and vegetables. They may not like fresh fruit or vegetables, but you should make sure to offer it to them with every meal if possible and to not give in when they demand to eat bread or chicken nuggets only every time. Try to minimize giving them juice, and even start watering down the juice that you give them. Avoid soda at all costs. Use smaller plates for smaller people, and don’t order them adult-sized portions at restaurants or give them adult size portions at home.

Another thing to think about is how you use sweets in your home. Ultimately, you need to teach your child about sweets. If you never let your child ever have any sort of sugar or treat, they will not learn about it or that it is something that they can eat but in limited quantities.

Teachers will tell you how they see kindergarteners or first graders get introduced to cupcakes for the first time in school and how the child’s reaction is to gobble them and then continue to eat more than their share, never having learned that cupcakes or something that you just eat one of rather than a whole plateful of.

Children tend to respond well to receiving treats as a reward for good behavior, but it is something that I am trying to do less of because I don’t want to create an association for children between sugar and good behavior.

Your goal is to develop your child into a person who enjoys cooking and enjoys healthy eating. Such a person is more likely to be able to have the tools to develop a healthy adult eating lifestyle and to have a healthy relationship with food rather than crash diet with a simple purpose of losing weight.

Get them moving, without the focus of doing it to lose weight–teach them to love it

Another component of a healthy lifestyle for an overweight child is learning about physical activity. And this isn’t the type of situation where you need to put your child into a military boot camp or to begin a boot camp at home. The first step to achieving any level of physical fitness is to start moving, and doing so in a way that it is fun.

If a child is very sedentary, the first thing you will want to do is begin to model the behavior that you want them to emulate. If you want them to walk, you’ll need to start walking and then make improvements on your own. Let them see you walking, let them see you getting ready to go for a walk and then stretching or doing other simple exercises on the floor when you get home.

If they enjoy riding a bike or a scooter, bring them along. The same is true if you are a slow jogger or even a runner. They don’t have to run with you and suffer along with you. They can ride their bike or even play nearby if you are running at the track. The key in this is to let them see what their eyes what it is that you do so that they will understand that this activity is valuable.

If you are already modeling behavior, the next step is to get them active. Rather than making it a workout, try activities that get them moving that they like. Do they like going to the playground, or going out into the woods and just poking around and walking? This doesn’t have to be focused on a heart rate or strength training or with any sort of effort to achieve some sort of arbitrary goal. The first step is to just move, and build enjoyment in moving. Is this a child who loves to go to the trampoline park? Try to get there regularly and play for hours if possible. Does this child enjoy bouncing a ball or swinging? Do those things, get off the couch to do them. Riding bikes, riding a scooter, climb trees, digging in the sand at the park, all of these activities are great.

If your child is older, like middle school, junior high, or high school, they may be interested in working out on a more regimented basis. This isn’t something that I recommend pushing or forcing. But if they show an interest in the gym or going to the gym with you, doing aerobics classes, or spin, or lifting weights, I would encourage that. If you are already going to the gym, it could be really fun to do Zumba or spin classes with your son or daughter.

This is also a great time to teach them some basics about setting up workouts, understanding what needs to be done to have what we would call a good workout and to incorporate some of the basics and benefits of strength training.

With a young child, you need to be careful with overdoing or overtraining. Their muscles are developing, and if we cause them to do more than they are ready for, we can actually set them up to be in a situation where they will be injured or struggle in the long-term. Some parents will argue against teaching children about heavy lifting, and medical professionals are divided on this. But regardless of what you think about heavy weights or high level aerobic training such as marathon, no one can doubt that it is good for children to learn about their bodies and how to work out. Even better if they can do it with you and it is something that you enjoy doing together.

Sports can be a great solution, but they aren’t for everyone

A good way to help a child to get in shape is to get them involved in sports. I think this one is an obvious one which is why I didn’t list it first and on the top of this article. But sports aren’t the solution for every child. children who are lacking in confidence or may just not be a very athletic individual may not self select sports or really enjoy participating in team sports.

If your child is not inspired by volleyball, basketball, wrestling, track, or any of the other standard competitive sports we see in high school, consider whether an alternative sport exists and is available in your area for your child to participate in.

Martial arts can be a really great place for a child lacking physical fitness and confidence to get started in physical activity. When the sport involves more than simply the physical activity, as martial arts does, your child can earn the benefits not only of the physical activity but also of the confidence and emotional maturity that comes from participating in martial arts.

The child may simply enjoy other sports more, such as gymnastics, or swimming. If your child doesn’t want to play basketball, don’t give up, there are other options for physical activity that may be just as good for them, and potentially do more for them long-term in their growth.

Other simple solutions

Here are some other simple things that you can do to encourage your child to be more active on a daily basis. Use the stairs instead of an elevator, make it a habit to park at the back of the parking lot and walk the distance to the front of the store rather than jockeying for a close spot in front of the store, turn on the music and have dance parties in the home, and play simple games around the house or in the backyard like tag or pillow fights that involve moving around.

Exercise should not be a punishment. If you use running laps or push-ups as punishment, your child will begin to associate physical activity as something negative and will do whatever they can to avoid it. 

Is your child being teased at school for being overweight?

Is she asking for diet pills or Diet products? If this is the case, it is time to start talking with your child about what it takes to be healthy and to maintain a healthy weight. But rather than giving in to the demands for diet products, take a look at her food and exercise education to date and then start filling in the holes.

Let her ask frank questions about her weight and be prepared to talk with her honestly and openly about how her goals can be achieved in a healthy way. Let her know that you support her and want to work with her on this but that you also love her as she is and you want her to be healthy and happy.

Confidence is such a key component to living a healthy lifestyle and a child who is in middle school or in high school is very vulnerable confidence-wise. It doesn’t take much to shake them. Helping her build confidence in herself, even if it is away from the food or exercise context may do just as much to help her achieve a healthy weight and lifestyle as diet and exercise.

How long will it take for my child to lose weight?

That really depends. If your child is young, the focus shouldn’t be on losing any particular amount of weight at all. The focus instead should be on achieving a healthy lifestyle of good food and lots of physical activity. The side product generally of eating well and being physically Active is that weight loss can result. But not every child is going to lose weight even eating a healthy diet and being very physically active.

Your focus as the child gets older again should not be on how much a child weighs. Don’t focus on the total pounds gained or lost. Focus instead on how much weight can be lifted, or how many miles can be walked. Can we climb that mountain? Those kinds of goals are much more healthy than losing a specific set amount.

Children should not lose weight rapidly. They are growing and they need nutrients and fat in their bodies to develop. If a child goes on a very restrictive diet or is so physically active that their body doesn’t get enough calories, they may not develop muscles or bone density, they may be very irritable, grumpy, and tire easily.

Thanks for reading! Before you go, check out another great article from our wonderful Mom Advice Line community:

Reply