By Stefanie Hamilton
There's as much concern today about childhood eating disorders as there is about childhood obesity. The mixed messages can be confusing: When should you begin to worry about your child's weight? How much should she eat? Or exercise? How much weight can he gain before you should be concerned?
These are all legitimate questions. But the answers aren't always as straightforward.
Very young children may carry extra weight, but most of them will grow into it. Their weight will stay the same as they get taller. Compare your children's height percentage with their weight percentage. If your children are in the 80th percentile for both height and weight, they're fine -- even if you think they seem a little overweight.
The other thing to consider with young children is their level of activity. If your children are a little chubby but also very active, you needn't worry. If, however, your children are fairly inactive (they prefer watching TV to playing outside), you should try and find creative ways to get them moving. Play hide-and-seek, toss a ball around outside or simply go for a walk.
If your child is older, pre-teen or teen-aged, excess weight is more of an issue. Though they're still not done growing, they won't have the kinds of growth spurts they had when they were younger.
A word of caution is important here, too, especially for parents of daughters. Our media inundate us with images of women who are super-thin, and have no curves whatsoever. Few females naturally have that body type. As your daughter enters puberty, she will start to develop breasts and hips. She'll start to get curvy, but curves aren't equal to being overweight. Be careful not to let our culture's obsession with the ultra-thin distort your (or your daughter's) ideas about weight and body shape.
When It's Time to Be Concerned
That being said, the following are causes for concern in pre-teens and teenagers: sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy eating habits and genuine weight gain (whether gradual or sudden).
A sedentary lifestyle is a strong precursor to weight gain. If your children prefer video games and Facebook to organized sports or riding a bike, some changes are in order. Consider limiting their "screen time" (including computer, television and cell phone usage), and get them involved in a sport. Start a family tradition of going for a walk after dinner or making outdoor activity part of your daily ritual.
If your child's favorite snacks are potato chips and M&Ms, some harder changes need to be made. Buy less junk food (or none at all), and fill the house with healthy snacks such as fruit and vegetables instead. This, of course, means that you will be eating healthier snacks, too.
A child who has been steadily gaining weight over several months needs help making these lifestyle changes. They won't like them at first. You can make it easier by encouraging the whole family to make changes. If everyone is trying to eat better and be more active, you can support each other. And, your child won't feel singled out or "picked on."
If your children have developed an eating disorder or are struggling with obesity, lifestyle changes at home may not be enough. It may be necessary to enroll them in a treatment program for eating disorders or obesity that can help them learn how to maintain a healthy lifestyle and a healthy relationship with food and exercise.
Ultimately, determination about your children's weight should be based not only on their weight, but on their activity level and eating habits, too. Your goal, and your children's goal, should be less about weight and more about a healthy lifestyle.