Weight Loss for Kids: Is it Safe?
Tips to help children attain a healthy weight in the long term
Recently I was asked about the specific portion sizes for kids. I looked bewildered. My innate response was “I don’t know”. Having carried, birthed, fed and nurtured four kids of my own and counselled several families, I was a little embarrassed by my ignorance. As I relaxed into my emotion, I realized, I don’t know it because I don’t recommend it! We don’t eat like robots!
We provide a good balance and variety of foods and let kids eat from what we provide according to their fullness cues.
Portion sizes for kids, while well-intentioned, can indirectly put kids at risk of dieting or restrict eating, and so it’s not the approach I recommend for helping kids attain a healthy weight. While it is true there is an obesity epidemic among us, encouraging dieting and hyper-focusing on weight loss in general, will in fact backfire and result in yo-yo-ing weights.
A recent study from Contemporary Pediatrics, shared that focusing on dieting over healthy eating habits can result in long term generational health problems, including the development of eating disorders and other mental health consequences, as well as consistently having extra body weight regardless.
Here are my five key messages to help children attain a healthy weight long term:
1. Kids are growing! We want to support healthy developmental growth.
- Focusing on weight loss during childhood can affect proper development. The focus should be on assessing healthy behaviour rather than simplistically just looking at weight.
- This approach is more sensitive to weight diversity and can create a more positive environment for kids to develop physically but also mentally and emotionally.
- For example, Body Mass Index (BMI) can show that a child is overweight, but they play soccer regularly, eat 3 balanced meals, sleep well and limit screentime. While they may enjoy second helpings on a regular basis, I am not so concerned about their weight because they are building generally good healthy habits. If a growth spur comes along this could naturally place them at a “healthy weight” (or not! if genetically speaking they are simply above standards).
- What truly matters is that they and their families develop the resiliency to keep striving and maintaining healthy habits through the many seasons and stressors in life. As well as remain connected with themselves and others throughout (see point 5).
2. Kids are asserting independence and autonomy through feeding themselves.
- Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DoR) helps establish a healthy eating relationship. Parents decide when, where and what is available to eat and kids decide whether they eat and how much.
- This approach lessens power struggles and helps kids feel confident in their food choices.
- The power of success in this method comes from parents developing skills to provide nutritious meals with balance and variety while learning to respect children’s responsibility in feeding themselves well.
- This approach also encourages family meals which have great health outcomes. And yes, they do require some effort and a lot of good humour!
3. Kids need structure, not rigidity.
- Division of Responsibility is not permissive parenting. It truly aims to provide adequate structure that supports children’s learning process.
- This structure includes setting the right consistent meal pattern (such as 3 meals and 2 snacks), aiming to feed them regularly and predictably every 2-3 hours, providing balanced meals with all food groups and plenty of variety including some foods that are familiar and some that are new.
- Above all, being a good role model by eating with them and enjoying the same meal is one of the simplest ways to nourish children and oneself well!
4. Kids need big picture, not nit-picking
- It is a big temptation these days to control weight by controlling food, but ongoing research in weight management is unanimous in stating that many factors come to affect weight gain.
- Creating healthy habits around sleep, screentime, sedentary activities, exercise, body positivity and emotion regulation are all part of the big picture process.
- Parents can educate themselves about portion sizes from a resource, as a way of gaining understanding of what to provide, but should move away from portioning meals for their children according to what they think is reasonable for the child.
- Recommendations need to be made in a holistic way, looking at the challenges in lifestyle of each individual child and the family unit as a whole.
- Remember we all need joy, so making health habits fun and enjoyable is super important. If there is no joy, there really isn’t any reward. Higher rewards such as feeling purpose, love and connection are key to creating healthy eating relationships. You can find out more about these bio-chemical associations from Emotion Brain Therapy.
5. Above all: Kids need connection and attachment.
- Kids can have issues with weight gain or weight loss or feel body shame while being in a “perfectly” healthy weight.
- The reality is helping kids handle deep emotions is essential to helping them become happy healthy eaters and resilient adults.
- Food can so easily become a way to cope with stress and emotions and can therefore rupture a good food relationship.
- So many adult clients I know talk about how their problems with food and weight started when they were children, and are connected to deep emotion and a poor sense of belonging and connection.
- More and more neuroscience is discovering how important connection and attachment to ourselves and others are in overcoming unhelpful habits. A good place to start understanding the importance of connection with our children is the Neufeld Institute.
So, when thinking about weight loss for kids please keep these five ideas in mind. Seek a medical provider to help you navigate adequate growth and a dietitian to help you meet your kids’ needs holistically and with a great dose of fun!
Be a role model for healthy happy children! As a parent or caregiver, assess where you could display healthier eating habits. Then make a resolution to eat better like, “I will have 2 different coloured vegetables at dinner” or “I will place 2 types of carbs for dinner a whole grain one and a white grain and aim for half of each” or “I will have one portion of a dessert after dinner for all to enjoy twice a week only.” This small step YOU take can have a huge impact on how kids learn good habits, but also, goal setting and self-compassion through the process.
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Daniela O’Brien is known for her contagious smile, warm approachability and collaborative approach to nutrition counselling for individuals and families. Her non-judgemental, calm demeaner mixed with confidence and clear direction is especially helpful when families are struggling with meal planning challenges, picky eating, health issues and complex eating disorders. Daniela specializes in Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating, Weight Concerns, Pre/Post-natal, Infant/Kids/Family Nutrition and offers services in both English and Spanish.