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The Junk Food Jungle: Tips for Helping Children Maintain a Healthy Weight

Today, one in five children in the United States are overweight or obese, and this has a profound effect on physical health, social and emotional well-being, and self esteem. Childhood obesity is also associated with poor academic performance and a lower quality of life experienced by the child.

Functional medicine can help your child maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight, depending on their needs. In this blog post, you'll learn a few underlying reasons why kids struggle with their weight today, and the lifestyle factors that we can change. We will also talk about the importance of healthy habits in children and teens, and provide some creative ways that parents can encourage their kids to eat healthy and get active!

Learn more about Integrative Pediatrics.

Why do children today gain more weight than they used to?

If current trends in child obesity continue, more than 57 percent of today's children in the US will have obesity at age 35, according to a study published in 2017 (1). The increase of obesity among children is largely explained by changes in eating habits and physical activity, plus other lifestyle factors, like:

  • Increased screen time
  • A diet high in unhealthy foods, junk food
  • Environmental toxins and endocrine disruptors
  • Hormone imbalances (PCOS, testosterone or estrogen imbalance, etc.)
  • Drinking sodas, juice, sweetened beverages

Children who have obesity are also more likely to have: High blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes (2). 

Aside from eating habits and physical activity, evidence suggests there are more complex factors that play a role in children's weight management as well.

For example, researchers found that children who received 3 or more courses of antibiotics before 2 years of age were at an increased risk of becoming overweight by age four (3). 

Related: Recognizing a Thyroid Problem in Your Child

Want to learn more?

5 Ways to Promote a Healthy Weight for Children

Creative tips to help get your whole family on board to eat a balanced diet, increase your activity level, and get to a healthy weight.

1. Lead by example

As a parent, you already know your kids copy almost everything you do. Seeing mom, dad, or other adults eat a piece of broccoli while making positive facial expressions makes a big difference when trying to get your kids to eat healthier. When trying to reach a healthy weight, adults in the house need to model habit changes in a positive way. This also helps to get the whole family on board, and not single out your child, which is very important.

This same applies to physical activity, too. When the family is active together—or if children see their parents exercising regularly—they’re more likely to jump in and participate in the same activities they see around them.

Read: 10 Mental Health Activities to Do With Your Children

2. Serve dessert with dinner

Do you spend mealtime battling, bargaining, and persuading your child to eat just so she can have dessert? The best way parents can undo this food fixation for younger kids is to start serving a small portion with the meal itself. Yes, it seems counterintuitive, but it’s a great way to reduce both their fixation on it and how much they consume (4).

When we build up dessert to be a ‘big treat’ children can only have after their meal, it reinforces the idea that their meal is only an obstacle. A child who sees the treat on their plate will initially eat the dessert first (and sometimes in a hurry), but after seeing it regularly their intake decreases.

In psychology terms, this tells your child that these foods are morally equivalent—and that they’re not good or bad for liking one over the other. Studies also show that kids who are allowed to explore foods on their own terms have a better relationship with food (5).

Read more: Real, Practical Nutrition for Healthy Kids

3. Set a timer for screen time (and stick to it)

A good rule of thumb is no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time, which includes TV, computer, video games, and digital devices like tablets and phones. And this should be a limit for the entire family, not just kids.

Most children have the natural urge to move and play, but it’s up to adults to put a cap on activities that keep kids sedentary for too long. Teens may need a little more encouragement to exercise, which is where structured activities, like games or sports, are very helpful.

Related: Do EMFs from Your Devices Make You Sick?

4. Serve a protein-powered breakfast

Starting the day with a protein-rich breakfast can help control hunger and cravings throughout the day. It can also help regulate blood sugar levels, which is important for maintaining energy and focus. A meta-analysis found that children who ate a protein-rich breakfast ate fewer calories overall the rest of the day, but felt fuller and weren’t as hungry (6).

Some great options for a protein-packed breakfast include:

  • Eggs
  • Oatmeal with nuts or seeds
  • Smoothie with Greek yogurt, nut butter, and chia seeds
  • Avocado toast with eggs
  • Leftovers from dinner the night before

Try these! Protein-Powered Breakfasts for Busy Mornings

A protein-rich breakfast helps stabilize your child’s weight, as well as help with weight loss for adults. Extra breakfast tip: Swap fruit juice for milk or water. Or, opt for a whole orange or apple instead.

5. Snack smart

Kids have super-fast metabolisms and little stomachs, so one way to make sure they satisfy their hunger in a healthy way is to have balanced snacks on hand. Focus on protein, plus healthy types of fats. Try to steer clear of empty carbohydrates from granola bars, cereals, and fruit juices. 

You don’t have to avoid all types of packaged foods, but it’s important to be mindful about which ones to serve. We like:

  • Baby carrots with hummus
  • Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit
  • Gluten-free crackers with nut butter
  • Sliced cheese and/or deli meat with crackers

Read: School-Day Healthy Toolkit

Common pediatric weight mistakes

Too much, too soon

A sudden overhaul in food choices, exercise habits, and other household changes can quickly feel overwhelming for kids. Young children may push back and become resistant to change if too many of their normal routines get disrupted. If you have several healthy habits you’d like to implement, start with one or two, and gradually make those changes.

Some easy beginning changes to make might be eating more family meals at home, switching from sweet drinks or juice to milk or water, and going for a walk or bike ride after dinner.

Conditions we treat: What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Focus on the journey, not the destination

For children, the goal with adopting healthier behaviors is to have them understand how their choices affect the way they feel. It’s not about losing weight or looking a certain way—it’s about adopting lifestyle practices that keep them feeling their best now and in the future.

Don’t use dessert as a reward

As parents, we’re all guilty of bribery at one time or another, and usually, a sweet treat is just the ticket. But experts caution against relying on this too often. Your child shouldn’t need to “earn” foods they love, and research shows it actually backfires. In this study, when children were pressured to finish their soup in order to get dessert, they ate less soup overall (and liked it less) than the kids who were allowed to eat dessert regardless of whether they finished the main meal (7). 

Unrealistic expectations

Since children grow at such a quick rate, your child’s doctor may not recommend that he or she lose weight, but maintain their weight or gain at a slower rate. It often takes a few months to see changes as well.

No matter what, your child needs to know you unconditionally love and support them and that your feelings are not contingent upon their weight or body.

Weight Loss Strategies for Children Who are Overweight

There isn’t a single weight management method that’s right for all children and adolescents. And since they’re still growing, it’s important to consider that weight loss isn’t always the right option. However, your functional medicine doctor will help identify and treat any underlying conditions that could be negatively affecting your child’s health. At CentreSpringMD we can design a program to help your child lose weight in a safe and healthy way.

Get to know our approach: What is Holistic Pediatrics and How Is It Different?

  • Nutritional Consult with Registered Dietitian —  We’ll evaluate your child’s treatment plan and make recommendations based upon your child’s biotype and metabolic needs. You’ll also receive practical resources on meal ideas, recipes, and suggestions for adjusting to healthy changes.
  • Functional Diagnostic Testing — Candida overgrowth, food sensitivities, underlying infections can all interfere with children’s health. We use a variety of conventional, integrative, holistic, and TCM diagnostic tools to get to the root cause of your child’s issues.
  • Developmental/Sensory Screen at each well-check, our team goes beyond the standard developmental screenings and spends the time it takes to evaluate and understand your child—listening to your concerns, questions, and feedback.

Learn more about our pediatric wellness memberships.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States, and its effects can be harmful to children’s health. A poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle are just two of the main factors contributing to excess weight gain in childhood, but there are steps you can take as a family to help your child maintain a healthy weight for their age. Eat a balanced diet, encourage activity, and lead by example. Integrative medicine can help you identify underlying causes of weight gain in your child, such as hormonal or digestive imbalances. If you’re concerned that your child may be overweight or struggling with their weight, please talk to your doctor about integrative medicine options that may be able to help.

Resources

  1. https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMoa1703860 
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity-child-17-18/obesity-child.htm
  3. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0016508516003528 
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666313001505
  5. https://healthyeatingresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/her-heg-technical.pdf
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34445000/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2604806/ 

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