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Weigh To Go!

4 ways to help your child win the battle of the bulge.

As a physician, I've spent years treating overweight adults, conducting seminars, and teaching Bible studies on the connection between our physical and spiritual lives. So imagine my surprise when I discovered my ten-year-old daughter getting a little "thick around the middle"!

Our pediatrician confirmed my suspicions: My daughter's body mass index (BMI) was at the 95th percentile on the growth chart—meaning that out of a random group of 100 ten-year-old girls, only 5 would be taller and heavier than she was.

As a parent of an overweight child, I wasn't alone. More than 15 percent of children in the U.S. are overweight, and approximately 11 percent of adolescents are obese, with even higher numbers found in certain racial groups such as African Americans. As a result, certain weight-related health problems are being diagnosed at a younger age. By the time these children become adults, many already have experienced the long-term consequences of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and arthritis.

I knew my efforts would backfire if I came across as an obsessive, nagging mother, or as some sort of exercise fanatic.

And in a society that exalts thinness, overweight kids contend with ridicule and negative stereotyping from their peers and even from adults. That sting of rejection can endure for years.

While overweight children can experience feelings of rejection, it shouldn't occur in their own homes. If we don't approach this issue carefully, we run the risk of marring our child's self-esteem and even planting seeds for eating disorders.

I certainly didn't want our daughter to sense disapproval from my husband and me. But we knew we had to take the "bull by the horns." So we told her we planned to break a few bad habits and modify others.

How did I fare with this challenge? It wasn't easy; when I found candy wrappers stuffed in her pockets, or empty bags of chips in her book bag, I had to resist getting upset or throwing in the towel. But by approaching the problem with love, patience, wisdom, and prayer, I was able to help my daughter gain control of her weight.

If you face this all-too-common problem, here are four practical tips to motivate your child to win the battle of the bulge.

1. Focus on health.

If the motive for losing weight is to "look good" by society's standards, you'll find little scriptural support. According to Genesis 1:27, God created us in his image—with no qualifiers regarding physical appearance or body weight. Vanity is no virtue, but exercising regularly and adhering to a nutritionally sound diet require discipline and self-control—character traits strongly emphasized in God's Word. I kept our efforts with our daughter in the context of preserving her health, not enhancing her appearance.

Most of us—adults and children—fall short of the USDA's recommendation to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. So even though I'd always kept fruit available for snacking and tried to serve a wide variety of vegetables with meals, I needed to go a step further. I started teaching my daughter about the connection between our diet and our health. As a physician, I had the advantage of stimulating her interest through real-life examples of patients with nutrition-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. But you don't need to be an M.D. or a registered dietician to generate this kind of dialogue. There's plenty of nutritional information in the media or on the Internet.

Choosing food wisely is only half the equation; practicing moderation is the other half. Too much of even the most nutritionally sound food is not a good thing. I have a friend whose daughter spends part of her summer vacation with her father on the West Coast. This year, she returned home ten pounds heavier than when she left. My friend tackled the problem primarily through portion control. She switched from dinner plates to salad plates and began putting the food away immediately after serving the meal as an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" approach to curtailing second helpings. So far, she's had good success with few complaints.

If your child's extremely overweight, discuss it with your pediatrician, who might recommend a more structured weight-loss program. As parents, we're responsible for teaching our children the benefits of eating the right foods in the right amounts. By doing so, we set the foundation for years of good health.

2. Limit (or eliminate) television.

If you need one more reason to turn off the television, here it is: Studies show that children who watch an excessive amount of television are at increased risk for obesity.

The connection between television and weight gain is threefold. The first is obvious—it's a sedentary pastime. When it comes to entertainment choices, television, video games, and computers have taken the lead over jump ropes, balls, and bicycles.

Second, television viewing tends to increase snacking. There's nothing wrong with eating carefully chosen snacks that supply the nutrients and vitamins our children need. But when the television's on, you're more likely to find kids munching from a large bowl of potato chips than eating a small handful of raisins or baby carrots.

Finally, television is fraught with commercials for processed foods and sugary drinks targeted specifically to appeal to our children. The ad campaigns are successful, as evidenced by pantries full of the very foods that contribute to weight gain—high-fat, high-calorie snacks and beverages with little or no nutritional value.

Limiting television wasn't a major problem in our home, but in many households, it's easier said than done. Parents often need to provide a television alternative. For overweight children, the best replacement is anything that keeps their bodies moving—sports, walking, biking, or even household chores. But passive activities such as reading or crafts are still better than television, since your children won't be exposed to the advertising.

3. Increase their level of physical activity.

When I decided to increase my daughter's activity level, I kept one truth in mind: Ten-year-old girls are prone to reject whatever they deem to be "uncool." I knew my efforts would backfire if I came across as an obsessive, nagging mother, or as some sort of exercise fanatic. So I set out to up her activity level in both obvious and subtle ways.

She happily accepted the obvious ways—they provided us with opportunities to spend fun time together. We devoted 15 minutes each morning to aerobic exercise, and in the evening we'd take walks. I also enrolled her in a ballet class, though I wouldn't recommend this if your child already is committed to several extracurricular activities.

The not-so-obvious ways required a greater degree of forethought and creativity. I bought an old-fashioned "Twister" game to give us a more active way to spend our family nights than our usual routine of playing board games. Another creative change went completely unnoticed. My younger children attend a preschool a block away from the two older children's school. I'd always taken the older kids first, then driven to the preschool. By simply reversing the drop-off order and having my older children walk the extra distance, I managed to increase their activity level by more than a half-mile each week—and they were none the wiser.

These simple strategies may not seem like much, but in the long run, small changes done consistently make a big difference.

4. Set a good example.

We can't ask our kids to snack on fruit and yogurt while we eat chips and dip. We can't expect them to be more active if we take the elevator up a single flight of stairs.

I was guilty of not practicing what I preached when it came to fast food. I'd always set limits on how often we ate out until I had my fourth child. Her birth gave me a convenient excuse for yielding to the temptation of the ubiquitous drive-thru lane. I felt justified because we were such a "busy" family—surely if anyone was entitled to a quick meal every now and then, we were.

But my excuse was lame at best. I knew how to prepare quick and healthy meals, and I'd mastered the technique of cooking ahead and freezing for later. What I lacked was discipline. Once I acknowledged the problem, I broke the fast-food habit and went back to my kitchen. And my decision to set a good example led to a double blessing: My family has healthier meals, and my daughter's learning how to cook!

It's been close to a year since we implemented our changes, and I'm pleased to say our strategy's working. My daughter's now only slightly overweight and, since she's still growing, I anticipate she'll have a much healthier BMI before the end of puberty.

As Christians, we know our bodies are the dwelling place of God's Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). By showing our kids the benefits of adequate exercise and proper nutrition, we give them a meaningful, tangible way to glorify God.

Kara Davis, M.D., is the author of Spiritual Secrets to Weight Loss (Siloam Press). She and her family live in Illinois.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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