With constant reports about childhood obesity popping up, parents are often concerned when they see their child gain weight. A period of rapid growth occurs during the first year of life, and then slows for the next few years, until another stage of rapid growth occurs at about ages 8-15. During this time, children experience a growth spurt, with a weight gain of 40 pounds on average being a natural and crucial part of this process.
All children experience growth differently, and it is common for kids to gain weight before stretching out and getting tall. Focusing on your child’s weight will not benefit him or her in the long term, and may lead to developing disordered eating and a negative body- and self-image. But there are some things you can do to ensure your child reaches adulthood as healthy as possible.
Don’t Talk About Weight
Because weight is not a sign or predictor of health, there is no benefit to discussing weight with children. In fact, doing so can have lasting repercussions. In a recent study, women were asked how they felt about their size and weight. The women who remembered parents commenting on weight when growing up were dissatisfied with their current size and weight.
Additionally, children who were labeled as “too fat” when growing up were more likely to have an “obese” BMI when adults, demonstrating the effect weight stigma (labeling children as fat) has on the body’s response (by stimulating stress processes) and behaviors.
Follow the Growth Curve
Recognize that people come in different sizes, and just because society approves of a certain body type doesn’t mean it’s the healthy size for everyone. Five percent of children are, by definition, healthy when in the 95th percentile on the growth charts. So long as one’s growth continues according to the current pattern, there should be no reason for concern. When height or weight starts moving up or down percentiles, that may represent feeding issues and concerns.
Avoid Restricting Food
As per child feeding expert Ellyn Satter MS RD CICSW BCD’s division of responsibility, parents are responsible for deciding what foods to serve, and when and where to serve them. Children have the option of deciding how much, if any, of that food they will eat.
Train your child to tune into his or her feelings of hunger and fullness, and then trust your child to eat enough to meet his/her nutritional needs, even if that seems to you like too much or too little food. Don’t be overly concerned about each meal, as the general pattern of food eaten is much more important. (For example, one meal may be carb heavy, the next meal only protein, the next day s/he loads up on veggies, and the next meal s/he eats nothing; over the course of a few days s/he’ll meet his/her nutritional needs.)
Restricting food, or limiting how much your child eats, only makes food that much more appealing, and when there is no supervision, or when given free reign, children (like adults), will eat as much as they possibly can. When always allowed to eat to fullness, food becomes less powerful, and can be taken or left. Eating in tune to hunger and fullness allows us to feed our body what it requires, without using outside cues like food remaining on a plate, or the clock saying it’s lunch-time.
Make It a Family Affair
Involve the entire family in making healthy choices, regardless of age and size. Remember that weight is not an indicator of health, and everyone can benefit from eating better and getting active. One wonderful way to enforce this is by eating meals as a family whenever possible. Eating together has the benefit of lower likelihood of developing an eating disorder, lower rates of obesity, as well as higher self-esteem, more resilience, better academics and more.
Getting active as a family is also a great way to improve everyone’s health, as physical activity reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers; improves mood and mental health; and strengthens bones and muscles.
- Wansink, B., Latimer, L.A. & Pope, L. (2016). “Don’t eat so much”: how parent comments relate to female weight satisfaction. Eating and Weight Disorders
2. Hunger, J.M. & Tomiyama, A.J. (2014). Weight labeling and obesity. A longitudinal study of girls aged 10 to 19 years. The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics 168(6) 579–580
3. Benefits of family dinners. Thefamilydinnerproject.org
4. Physical activity and health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Bracha Kopstick is a registered dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian, and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com