Worried about your child’s weight? Here are some effective, research-backed things you can do – and not do – to support your child’s healthy relationship with food and body image.
You may have heard that Weight Watchers recently launched “Kurbo”, an app targeting kids as young as 8 years old – despite stating that the “Health and Weight Loss Coaching for Kids, Teens, and Families” app “is not designed for kids”.
The app uses a traffic light system to designate foods as being good or bad (using red, yellow, and green light categories).
While Weight Watchers has marketed this app as a “health tool”, when nutrient-dense foods like beans, grains, and almond butter are given the “red light” and kids are encouraged to post before and after photos, there’s NO other way to spin the fact that this is a weight loss tool for children.
Traffic lights are for roads, not children. We, and countless other nutrition experts, feel that this app will do more harm than good for kids and – in line with research – will result in kids forming negative relationships with food and poor body image.
We’ll say it louder for the people in the back: kids shouldn’t be on a weight loss diet.
How Dieting Impacts Kids
It’s not just us, as two concerned moms, who feel this way. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is also against weight loss diets for kids.
Adolescents are supposed to gain weight as they enter puberty. Encouraging weight loss at this sensitive time in life (anybody remember puberty? woof) will likely result in long-lasting, harmful physical and psychological effects. And that’s exactly what the research shows.
Children who are encouraged to go on a diet are two-thirds more likely to develop an eating disorder, and are more likely to have disordered eating patterns and negative body image later in life.
In fact, a 2016 clinical report from the AAP says that eating disorders are being recognized more often in kids as young as 5 to 12 years old.
And we know that this is absolutely not what you want for your kids.
Yes, we have a childhood obesity problem – an epidemic in fact – but combatting it by putting kids on diets is not the answer.
This crisis is so much bigger than individual’s food choices. It’s about our food system as a whole.
So, what does work for helping kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight?
How To Positively Impact Your Child’s Weight and Body Image
It turns out that being a good example, in more ways than just politeness and manners, is imperative for a child’s healthy development. This means modeling health-promoting behaviors and not discussing weight, body image or food in a negative or shameful way.
Some positive health-promoting behaviors that you can model for your kids include:
Getting enough sleep
Choosing physical activity that brings you joy
Honoring hunger and fullness
Managing stress in healthy ways
Communicating your feelings and emotions
Celebrating wins of all sizes and using disappointments as discussion and learning opportunities
Eating more plant-based foods
Studies show that plant-based eating patterns in kids are associated with better weight management and increased fruit and veggie intake – yet another reason to incorporate more health-promoting plant foods in your kid’s diet!
When The Doctor Says Your Child Is Overweight
We’ve heard many stories about parents of young children being told to monitor their toddler’s weight by their pediatrician based on body mass index (BMI) measurements.
And while BMI can sometimes be a helpful tool to assess weight trends, it’s far from the gold standard – especially when it comes to kids. BMI is especially controversial when used as a primary health indicator for kids under age 6.
Plus, a 2017 study published in PMC Pediatrics assessed 663 overweight and obese kids, finding that the BMI was a poor predictor of body fat percentage and total fat mass in kids under age 9.
What’s a better approach to understanding your child’s health and development? Look at his or her overall growth trends. It’s more important to focus on any significant changes in the growth chart than on their placement within the chart itself.
Weight alone should not be used as an indicator of a child’s health. All bodies are different, and being thin is not the same as being healthy, no matter what diet culture and media says.
If your pediatrician says differently, respond confidently by shifting the conversation to sleep, activity, and eating patterns instead of numbers on a scale.
You know your child – and his or her daily behaviors – better than anyone, so go with your gut here.
When Your Kid Loves Snack Foods
It’s common for caregivers of little ones to have anxiety around whether their child is eating a healthy diet. We’ve been there, especially when it comes to snack foods (anyone else’s kid just want to eat snacks all day long?).
It’s also common for parents to respond to this anxiety by either allowing constant snack attacks or over-restricting their children from these foods.
But the truth is, while intentions are usually good, both ways of handling this anxiety are rooted in diet culture. We continue to categorize eating habits, and food choices, as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, red or green light.
What’s the answer? Allow some of these foods on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean continuously stocking your pantry with bags of potato chips and candy. It just means making these foods less of a big deal, so your child becomes desensitized to them.
In other words, your kid won’t be going nuts over junk food if it’s not a totally restricted food.
Incorporating snack foods, and less healthy foods, as a regular option for your children may sound counter-intuitive, but evidence shows it’s a good idea.
This idea goes back to one of our favorite philosophies around feeding kids well – Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. We suggest approaching sweets and treats in a similar way.
How To Advocate For A Healthier Food System
If the poor nutritional value of our food system as a whole outrages you as it does us, here are some everyday things you can do, in addition to leading by example in your household.
Vote with your dollars.
Tell the government and food companies what we do and do not want in our food supply.
Demand that companies stop marketing junk food to kids.
Support politicians who care about our children’s health and won’t be pressured by food lobbyists into policies that hurt our kids (e.g. the recent relaxation of regulations on the nutritional content of school lunches).
Big problems require big changes, not ineffective, out-dated, short-term solutions – especially when they are harmful for our children.
Chime in: How do you feel about the Weight Watchers app for kids?
P.S. If you’re looking for more guidance around feeding young kids – especially new eaters – check out our ebook, Plant-Based Juniors: First Bites The Definitive Guide to Baby-Led Weaning for Plant-Based Babies.