Childhood obesity: Make weight loss a family affair

Preventing and treating childhood obesity requires the entire family. Here's how you can encourage a healthy weight in your home.

Children can't change their exercise and eating habits by themselves. They need the help and support of their families and other caregivers. This is why successful prevention and treatment of childhood obesity starts at home.

Childhood obesity is usually caused by kids eating too much and exercising too little. So creating new family habits around healthy eating and increased physical activity can help a child lose weight and can also improve the health of other members of the family.

Change family behaviors

Many behaviors contribute to childhood obesity, whether it's the time spent in front of the TV or computer or the types and amounts of food eaten. These behaviors or habits are hard to change within a family, especially if members aren't ready, willing or able to make changes. Small, progressive steps can help. Keep in mind the following helpful hints.

  • It's not a race. The first rule of change is to not make changes too quickly. It takes time and dedication to unlearn unhealthy behaviors and to develop new, healthy ones.
  • Think small. Small, gradual changes are easiest to follow and incorporate into your daily lives. And small changes can make a big difference over time. Pick a few small changes that seem doable, for example, turning off the TV during dinner, switching from soda pop to milk or water, or taking a walk after dinner once a week.
  • Set individual and family goals. Goals need to be achievable and measurable. Set specific goals for each family member, and then determine family goals. For example, your child's goal might be to eat fresh fruits and vegetables for afternoon snacks, and the family's goal might be to eat out at a fast-food restaurant only once a month.

The new changes might take some time getting used to. But stick to the plan as best you can and evaluate your progress. Sometimes goals need to be adjusted if they don't work for the family. It's better to create a new plan than to stick to one that isn't working.

Create a healthy-weight environment

As you work toward healthy habits and behaviors, create a home environment that supports these efforts. For example, make sure healthy foods are readily available. Serve fruits and vegetables with meals and remove high-calorie, high-fat foods from the home, buying them just occasionally.

A healthy-weight environment also means that exercise and physical activity are built into the day's routine. Encouraging the kids to play outside — to ride bike or play a basketball game with friends, for example — is a good way to keep kids active. Organize family outings that involve physical activity, such as walking to the library or playing at a park.

Parents can also set rules for the home that help reinforce the healthy lifestyle. For example, limiting the time spent watching TV or playing video or computer games encourages children to find other more active pastimes.

Other ways to create a healthy-weight environment:

  • Remove sugar-sweetened drinks from the home.
  • Offer more whole-grain foods with meals and snacks.
  • Reduce the number of meals eaten out at fast-food and other restaurants.
  • Sit down together for family meals and have that meal last at least 30 minutes.
  • Remove TVs and computers from children's bedrooms.
  • Include children in active chores, such as washing the car or walking the dog.

As your family establishes healthy behaviors, be sure that all members — including parents — stick to the plan. For example, if you take the TV out of your child's bedroom, make sure to take the TV out of your bedroom as well. Consistency is crucial to creating a healthy-weight home.

Be a positive role model

The best way to get your child on board with the new, active lifestyle is to commit to the changes yourself. Your actions teach your child what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat. You also encourage your child to be physically active every day if you make it a priority yourself.

Here's how you can be a positive role model:

  • Eat more healthy, nutritious foods.
  • Control your portion sizes.
  • Limit the number of treats and high-calorie snacks you eat.
  • Be physically active every day.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend watching TV or playing computer games.
Reward successful changes

Rewards for successful behavior changes keep your family motivated and more inclined to stick to the plan. Make a list of how your family has succeeded in changing certain eating and activity habits. Then celebrate your success. Rewards should be consistent with the goal and be given regularly, such as on a daily or weekly basis.

Celebrating progress can be as simple as offering your child praise and attention, or it could be more involved. Planning an activity the family likes to do together, such as skating or swimming, is a good option. Don't use food as a reward or punishment, however. You might unintentionally lay the groundwork for food-related power struggles.

A challenge for today's family

Making changes can be challenging, especially when today's families juggle busy schedules, time and money constraints, and other stressors and demands on daily living. But if your family works together and supports each others' efforts, then success is more likely.

Eventually the new changes will be incorporated into your family's everyday life and will be just the way things are done. Once healthy habits become routine, you're well on your way to maintaining a healthy weight and improving your health as a family.