My daughter is the heaviest child in her class. She’s only in second grade. Can I put her on a diet?

Don’t “put her on a diet. Change her diet. You’ll notice the difference very quickly.

Tragically, the children of America are getting fatter. Studies reported in Prevention magazine found that children weighed an average of 11.4 pounds more in 1988 than they did in 1975, even though average height measurements had not changed. In other words, our children aren’t growing taller. They’re growing wider.

If something isn’t done, these obese children will first become obese teenagers and then obese adults. Most overweight children are unhappy underachievers who learn early that you can bandage a hurt by slapping food on it. Some children will continue to eat everything in sight. Others may stop eating altogether in an attempt to get thin, developing severe eating disorders which can be life-threatening.

If you have school-age children, you shouldn’t control the quantity of food they eat. Instead, you need to pay special attention to its quality. Despite your best efforts, children will trade lunches and use their allowances to buy sweet, processed foods from vending machines. It’s up to you to make certain that the food that’s served and stocked at your home is healthy and nourishing. It may take some time to retrain your child’s taste buds so she’ll reach for a slice of cantaloupe as readily as for a piece of candy, but it can be done with patience and good humor. It will be a big help if you make certain that you’ve swept out all the foods that are bad to eat and keep the cupboards and refrigerator filled only with the fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains that will encourage good nutrition.

If you had started your daughter on this food plan from infancy, your feeding task would have been easier. From breastmilk, a child can go to steamed vegetables and mashed fruit. Parents shouldn’t use butter or cheese sauce to make these vegetables more appealing. If your child says “yuck”, wait a few weeks and then offer them the food again. You’ll find they may like it better as their taste buds mature. By the time a child is two or three, it will then be easy to explain that the cookies at Grandma’s house aren’t the kind of food you eat at your house. You aren’t depriving your child of anything. This is the time to scrub out the food fallacies you were raised to believe.

It is a little more difficult if you are changing the diet of a child who has been eating junk food for six or seven years. Pediatricians have found that very few overweight children really have glandular problems. Usually the reason they are obese is that they are eating more calories than they burn off. Not only are they eating too much, they are eating fat calories that pack the pounds on quicker.

The secret I want to teach every parent is how to approach the subject of losing weight. Simply making sure that your child exercises a few times a week and eliminating a few hundred empty calories a week will result in a slimmer child. Did you know that 50% of a child’s calories comes from the snacks in between meals? If you substitute fruit for candy, or carrot sticks for potato chips, you are on your way to seeing a healthier and happier child.

The worst thing you can do is talk about diets or fat. You want to keep up the child’s self-esteem and prevent eating disorders. Instead of negatives, talk about food that will “make you run faster” or “help you play soccer better” or “have more fun at the beach. Make the new foods into a game. Seek out the bad ingredients in various products around the house, and throw those products away together. Teach your daughter that eating correctly is something she can take pride in. Be light hearted instead of heavy handed. Show your love and have fun!

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