If you had a choice, which conversation would you rather have with your children? The one about the birds and the bees? The one about saying no to drugs? Or the one about them needing to lose weight?
According to a new study by WebMD and Sanford Health called “Raising Fit Kids,” parents find the weight talk most daunting. “Most parents are aware that it’s just a very sensitive subject, and they’re just afraid to,” says Maureen Shannon, a school psychologist with the Nassau County, N.Y., schools, also runs the group discussion for Healthier Tomorrows, a Huntington, N.Y.-based, multidisciplinary weight-management program for children ages 9 to 16.
But even kids who aren’t yet overweight can benefit from discussions about healthy eating.
Experts suggest the following ways parents can bring up the topic in a positive way and encourage their children on the road to better health:
Denial and fear
The biggest reason some parents don’t talk to their kids about being overweight is because they are in denial, according to the study. “When we’re looking at someone we love, we often don’t see them as they really are,” says Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, pediatrician and a child obesity specialist who runs the Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right program with nine locations on Long Island.
You can determine with black-and-white numbers whether your child is at a healthy weight, says Susan Bartell, a Port Washington, N.Y., psychologist specializing in fitness, body image and weight loss for kids and teens and a WebMD contributor. Plug your child’s height, weight and age into a BMI calculator — you can find one at apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpabmi. If your child is in the 85th to 95th percentile, he’s overweight; 95 to 99 is obese; above 99 is morbidly obese, Dolgoff says.
Some parents also worry that bringing up the topic might trigger an eating disorder. “Eating disorders are very, very complicated,” Bartell says. “They don’t come from you having positive conversations with your child about eating better.”
Starting the conversation
“How should parents talk to children about weight? In a nutshell, very delicately,” Shannon says. Though it may seem counterintuitive, don’t focus on the scale. “When you weigh kids, they get fixated on the number,” Bartell says. Instead, talk to all your children about a family effort to be healthier, the experts interviewed say.
“You want to make sure you use the word ‘we,’’” Dolgoff says. “Even if you are a thin parent, you might not have the best eating habits in the world. Even thin children shouldn’t be eating cupcakes every day. Even thin people get heart attacks and strokes. I would not give one kid a cupcake and one kid a carrot stick.”
Don’t make it a sit-down talk, but rather incorporate an ongoing discussion into different moments of your life, the experts advise. You do need to give the kids a heads up that things will be changing, Dolgoff says. “Don’t all of a sudden say, ‘We’re having vegetables instead of French fries today,’ without telling them why. They get angry,” Dolgoff says. You’ll need to be a role model and adopt healthier habits as well.
Turning talk into action
When the kids ask yet again to go through the drive-thru, don’t yell, but be firm. “Say, ‘We’ve been eating a little too much fast food lately.’ Suggest going home to whip up something from the fridge,” Bartell says.
Go slowly. “If you make fast changes, your kids will rebel,” Bartell says. Try substituting a bowl of fruit instead of a calorie-laden dessert. Bring the kids to the grocery store to show them labels and explain why one food choice is healthier. Prepare a meal together, Shannon suggests.
“I like to praise habits, not weight loss,” Dolgoff says. “Say, ‘How great that you chose low-fat cheese over the brownie for a snack,’ versus ‘Wow, you lost five pounds.’”
While the federal Centers for Disease Control recommends 60 minutes of activity for kids daily, Dolgoff says she’s more realistic, encouraging 45 minutes four times a week. Some kids exercise only in gym class. “That’s just not enough,” Shannon says.
Exercising is more than just getting on the treadmill. Choose a family activity, such as biking or hiking, which also encourages bonding, Shannon suggests. And cut down screen time to carve out time to play.
Make sure your child is getting at least nine hours of sleep, Bartell says. When they’re tired, they won’t exercise and are more likely to turn to comfort food, she says.
Don’t have children “diet.” Kids need a range of nutrients, and they don’t need drastic calorie reduction to start losing, Bartell says. If you make them diet, they’ll sneak food and binge at friends’ homes, she says.
Never reward with food, Bartell says. “The reward is you start to feel good, you feel more energetic.”