UPDATED November 16th, 2017
Okay, mamis, what do you think is the first lesson for keeping your children at a healthy weight so they don’t grow up suffering from obesity and diabetes? Hint: The answer may surprise you.
The very first thing you need to understand is what a healthy weight looks like for a child. No, mami, it’s not puffed out cheeks and three little chins—that’s for infants and baby angels only. A healthy child is at his or her skinniest when they are four or five years old. If they are normally active, they’re burning tons of energy, and you should be able to see some sharp edges like knees and elbows.
Then over the next few years as they get ready for their growth spurt, they’re going to put on some extra weight. Many boys and girls of 7 to 9 look a little pudgy. It’s natural. They need the reserves for the sudden growth of bone and transformation of muscle and fat that takes place just before and during adolescence, when boys and girls suddenly shoot up in height.
Take a look at a photograph of your family from the 1950’s or 1960’s. Whether they were here or in another country, chances are the kids were scrawny looking, and it was not from lack of food. Children used to be much more active, so they maintained a healthy weight. And they didn’t have access to all the soda, packaged snacks, and fast food they do today.
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Your pediatrician or public health dietician has growth charts that show what a healthy growth trajectory is for your child. The same measure of metric weight divided by height squared that works for adults is not used for children, because the composition of their tissues is so different. Instead, we look at the general height of the family, and how the child develops over time in terms of both weight and height.
If you find out your child is too heavy, which would mean he or she would be in the top 5% or 10% of weight for age but not height for age, you don’t want to put them on a diet the way you would an adult. Instead, you want to try and maintain their weight until their next growth spurt makes them longer and leaner. Children need so much nutrition that unless they have special health problems, it’s better not to restrict their diet. But the food you offer should be rich in protein, vitamins and minerals and low in refined sugars and starches, like white bread, white rice, and mashed potatoes.
Here are some easy ways to improve kids’ nutrition and strive for a healthy weight:
- Do not allow sugary drinks, especially cola, except as a special treat.
- Offer 2% milk or water in place of soda. For healthy bones, children need 3 glasses a day.
- Restrict candy, sugary desserts, and refined carbohydrates like chips and French fries.
- Read labels: You’ll be shocked at the number of calories and negligible amount of nutrition in many processed foods like instant filled pastries and breakfast tarts.
- Offer plenty of choices of healthy snacks, instead: small apples, reduced-fat cheese, ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread, small container of reduced-fat yogurt, salsa, bean dip, or guacamole with carrot sticks, sweet red peppers and cucumbers for dipping.
- Serve more vegetables and fruits with every meal. If you can, start supper with a small salad. Don’t have dessert every night unless it’s a piece of fruit.
- Try to offer fish once or twice a week. Other times opt for turkey and chicken or small portions of lean pork or beef. Limit bacon, sausages, and other processed meats as much as possible.
- Limit time spent in front of the computer and the television.
- Encourage your child to get out and play: play soccer, ride a bike, run around the playground, even just walk to school if possible.