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It's a problem that shouldn't be ignored: Childhood obesity can contribute to the early development of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems and heart disease. And it's not just physical health that is affected. "Kids with excessive weight may be bullied or suffer from low self-esteem and anxiety, which can interfere with education, friendships and normal childhood development," says Dr. Jill Hamilton, MD, staff endocrinologist and head of the Centre for Healthy Active Kids at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
Here's how parents can help their overweight child.
Understand what is causing the weight gain
"One of the first things a parent needs to do is think about the underlying reasons for the situation," advises Dr. Hamilton. For example, does your child come home from a bad day at school and reach for food as a way to feel better? This could indicate that they're eating as a way of coping with stress. In this case, an approach that includes counseling on ways to reduce emotional eating may be appropriate. Alternatively, if the issue is that your child gets really hungry and tends to overeat, you may need to seek help from a dietitian, who can discuss healthier food options that are more filling. "There are lots of different strategies which depend on knowing your child and knowing the situation," says Dr. Hamilton.
Don't single out your child
Parents should never single out their child as having the problem and needing to lose weight. "This approach could be very stressful for a young person," warns Dr. Hamilton. 'The focus should be on healthy behaviours, and not on weight." Talking to your child about healthy eating and setting goals together as a family is a much more effective strategy than focusing exclusively on shedding pounds. Start by making small changes to the whole family's diet and lifestyle. And keep in mind that what works for other children may not work for your own. "Parents with an overweight child need to understand that it is a complex disorder, and the solution for their child may be different than for other kids," says Dr. Hamilton.
Start healthy habits at a young age
"Outside the home, kids are inundated with potentially unhealthy choices, so it's important for them to have a safe haven at home where the food environment can be controlled," says Dr. Hamilton. Set a good example by modeling healthy habits around eating, physical activity and wellness. You can also boost a child's self-confidence by getting them involved in the decision-making process—even little ones can help pick fruit and vegetables at the grocery store, for example. And while it's never too late to adopt healthy habits, it is easier to tackle weight issues when kids are younger and more amenable to making changes. "The earlier you start, the better," says Dr. Hamilton.
Seek out resources in your community
There are many no-cost (or low-cost) community resources that parents can turn to for support. "Parents may feel isolated," says Dr. Hamilton, "so I really encourage them to look in their community to see what options are available to help them." Family health teams—organizations that include a team of family doctors, social workers, dietitians and other professionals who work together—are available in some provinces. And check out your local community health centre; these often offer free or reduced-cost programs in cooking, parenting, physical activity and nutrition.