One bite at a time: Weightloss strategies for overweight children

Dietitian Aoife Hearne says if you adopt a mindful eating approach from the start, the odds are your child will adopt a long-term healthy attitude to food.

WITH all this talk of mindful eating and one family one meal, I really had to walk the walk this week — and it was tough.

I had a movie night planned with a friend last Friday night. In hindsight, 8pm was probably unrealistic to be anywhere but I went with it, such was the desire to get some time away.

Of course, it was the one night that Miss Zoë decided she was having none of this bedtime lark. I was downstairs peppering at the door with the other two as Alan shushed and rocked and did everything to help her off into a slumber. And then Dylan started… “I’m hungry”.

I replied in my calm voice at first, ended in my hysterical voice

You’re not getting anything Dylan, you didn’t eat your lunch or your dinner; you’re going to have to wait until the morning

Needless to say, tantrums and tears ensued and I ran out the door that night 30 minutes late and ended up crying my eyes out at A Star is Born. Why did nobody tell me it had a sad ending?

As a very young dietitian, I thought I had all the answers when it came to weight loss. I really believed that if I gave people a list of what to eat / when / how much that it would be simple.

It turns out weight loss is far more complicated than that and made even more complicated by the constant media reports about obesity and in particular for parents, childhood obesity.

It’s fair to say that our culture is obsessed with weight. There are so many mixed messages out there when it comes to healthy eating that it would seem we are imposing our ‘diet’ mentality on our children and likely causing more harm than good. To counter that, I would like to give you some practical tips on what you, as a parent/carer can put in place for your family.

According to 2005 research in the journal Paediatrics, heavier babies and toddlers have a 75% chance of being normal weight as they grow. In addition, there is research to suggest that two major causes of overweight children are: misinterpreting a child’s normal size and labelling it overweight, imposing food restriction.

Keeping these factors in mind, it’s important not to jump to assumptions too quickly regarding weight in our young children and to seek professional help early on.

Your baby/young child’s weight and height is measured and plotted on a growth chart in the first year of life.

The goal of this is for these measurements to plot consistency along a particular percentile. When these measurements either cross upwards/ downwards across other percentiles, it would suggest there may be an issue.

This is why I believe regular health checks as children get older to include height/weight is important to help parents identify sooner if weight is an issue. But rest assured if you adopt a mindful eating approach from the start rather than a restrictive eating approach, the odds are on your side for your child to grow in a way that is right for them.

Nobody wants their child to be overweight, and for good reason. But many parents are feeding children with the intention of preventing obesity. Instead, I propose we feed them to nourish their body and allow their body to grow as nature intended. We need to understand that all children/adults come in different shapes and sizes and as parents we need to accept that.

So when it comes to nurturing healthy children and allowing them to follow their natural growth curves, the best approach is following paediatric dietitian Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility discussed in previous columns. Satter believes the what/when/where of eating is up to the parent/caregiver and how much to eat if at all is up to the children.

But what if your child is overweight? The natural instinct is to impose a restrictive type of eating regimen to help them lose weight. Remember, you can’t predict a child’s size and shape until they are fully grown. And keep in mind that according to Satter, if you try to force a certain outcome by restricting food intake or forcing activity, you will likely create the very problem you are trying to avoid.

For your older child, I would really encourage you to talk to your child. Often they will give you an ‘in’ by mentioning they are not happy with how they look.

Many parents will avoid talking about it out of fear of hurting their child’s feelings, but in my experience, it turns into the elephant in the room and the child believes it’s something to be ashamed of.

You can start the conversation by asking them how they feel about their body/weight. Your next step is really important. Resist the urge to impose ‘diet’ mentality or restricting food as the solution. Instead, your GP should be your first port of call to rule out any medical issues. After that, it would be wise to make an appointment with a registered dietitian .

Now comes the difficult bit. Embrace and commit to helping to create a mindful eater. A child who can recognise their full signal and who enjoys the food (treats included) they eat. And of course, this approach needs to be adopted by the whole family, not just one member.

This takes a lot of hard work, it won’t happen overnight. But just like everything when it comes to parenting persistence is the key to success.

In partnership with Pip and Pear baby food.

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