Michigan Association of Health Plans

Don’t Focus On Kids’ Weight Gain. Focus On Healthy Habits Instead

It’s a conversation I’ve had with many of my fellow parents in recent months, as our children have reunited at park play dates, and soccer matches: We’ve noticed our kids put on some extra weight during this pandemic, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we should do about it.

“You are not alone,” says Dr. Sandra Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight. “This is happening to many, many people.” She says the pandemic created “the perfect storm for having issues with weight gain,” with its mass disruption of school, sleep and physical activity schedules, as well as stress and social isolation.

“I think everybody’s shifting upward,” she adds. “Kids that were in the healthy weight range are shifting upward. Children with obesity are shifting upward and children with severe obesity are shifting upward.”

Weight is an incredibly fraught topic — and an imperfect indicator of health. As parents, a kid’s sudden weight gain can be hard to know how to tackle.

The last thing we’d want is to set the stage for poor body image or eating disorders for our children. “If we focus on weight, that can cause so many other problems,” says Anna Lutz, a registered dietitian in Raleigh, N.C., who specializes in family feeding issues.

Instead, Lutz and other experts say parents should focus on they’re supporting healthy habits in their kids. Here are what doctors and specialists who work with kids say about what to do — and not to do — to get your family back on track.

Do: Check in with your pediatrician to see whether the weight gain is outside the norm

A pediatrician can help assess whether your child’s weight gain is just part of their normal growth pattern, says Lutz.

Kids grow at different rates, and healthy kids come in all shapes and sizes, she explains. “But where we might get concerned is when a child veers off of their growth pattern significantly.” So, for instance, a kid who has been growing consistently along the 25th percentile and then suddenly jumps to the 90th, that might be a signal that something’s going on.

If so, the pediatrician may suggest ways to slow the rate of weight gain so that a kid’s height can catch up, Hassink adds.

Your child’s doctor might also want to make sure that a child isn’t developing health problems like elevated cholesterol, fatty liver disease or sleep apnea. Or, a sudden jump in weight could be a signal of other health issues. “There could be something going on emotionally that’s interfering with someone’s eating or movement. It could be a change in medication,” says Lutz.

“A lot of things happened during COVID to maybe make us a little less healthy,” says Hassink. She recommends that parents assess their family routines and figure out what got out of whack during the pandemic.

Don’t: Tell kids there’s something wrong with their weight

When you’re talking to kids, focus on healthy habits, not weight, experts say. This is important because weight isn’t as easily changed as behaviors, and “we are not all supposed to look the same,” says Lutz. “Bodies do come in all shapes and sizes and bodies change over time.”

Focusing on a number on the scale might lead a child to develop poor body image, says Lutz.

“When we start to send our children the message that there’s something wrong with their body, we’re setting them up for all these health concerns and emotional concerns, self-esteem problems,” she says. “Really, focusing on behaviors is what supports health.”

And ultimately, the goal is to foster healthy habits in children that they’ll maintain throughout their lives, says Hassink.

“This isn’t a 10-week program. We’re really aiming for these patterns that will start now and go across their lifespan.” And it’s about more than weight — good nutrition and physical activity are also key to preventing chronic illness, she says.

Sleep, regular meal times and physical activity are a good place to start.

Do: Get bedtimes back on track

In the chaos of the pandemic, and during summer breaks, sleep and wakeup times slid later and later for lots of kids, says Dr. Nazrat Mirza, medical director of the pediatric weight management clinic at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve had kids [going to sleep] at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. And then they nap during the day,” she says — instead of engaging in physical activity. Research has linked regular, adequate sleep to improved mental and physical health in kids. “So sleep is equally important,” as nutrition and exercise, she says.

If sleep routines have become a problem in your household, Hassink suggests trying to move kids’ bedtimes back by 15 minutes every two or three nights. Do the same thing with wake-up times, moving them 15 minutes earlier every few mornings, she says. “Work your way back into a sleep routine that matches what you’re going to need for school.”

Don’t: Put your kids on a diet.

Clinicians who work with kids are unanimous on this count: Restrictive eating is not for kids. “We know that children and adolescents that engage in dieting behaviors are more likely to develop eating disorders,” says Lutz.

And restrictive diets can also backfire. “In the long run it actually leads to increased weight gain,” she says, and it can set someone up for gaining and losing weight over and over again, which can have health consequences of its own.

This article originally appeared in NPR. Read more here.

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