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Herald Online: Ask Mr. Dad: Stop telling your kids how much to eat

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September 12, 2014


Dear Mr. Dad: My 8-year-old son is very overweight. We’ve talked about how he has to start eating less and get more exercise. But he doesn’t want to play sports because the other kids make fun of his weight. And even though I’m trying to change his diet – by making him eat more vegetables and taking away his dessert privileges – his weight isn’t changing. Just the other day I found a bunch of candy wrappers in his room. What can I do?

It’s obvious that your intentions are very good: Trying to get your son to exercise more and eat differently is an excellent strategy. The problem is in your execution.

Let’s start with the physical activity part.

I completely get your son’s reasons for not wanting to play on a sports team. Exercising in front of others can be humiliating. A recent study from Brigham Young University found that being bullied and teased is one of the main reasons overweight kids don’t exercise.

And the problems don’t end there. Being bullied/teased also negatively affect overweight kids’ grades and relationships with their classmates.

For now, the solution is to ease into an exercise program with the whole family. In your son’s mind, your suggesting that he exercise while everyone else is on the couch is just about the same as being bullied at school.

Start with walking. Try 15 minutes the first day and add 5-10 minutes every time you go out until you’re up to 45 minutes or so every day. Ideally, you’d do your walks in one chunk, but if you have to divide them 45 minutes into three 15-minute pieces, that’s better than nothing.

Once your son builds up a little endurance and loses a few pounds, add in some other activities. Bike riding, flag football or just running are great options.

Now, let’s talk food.

I spoke with Patricia Riba, author of “Fit Kids Revolution,” and Dina Rose, author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli.” Both had a similar take on situations like your son’s. What it comes down to is that when you try to force a child to eat something, he’ll end up hating it, and when you prohibit a child from eating something, he’ll crave it even more.

When it comes to meals, parents can control the “what” and the “when.” But children (like adults) must have control over the “how much.” By trying to control everything your son puts in his mouth, you’re not letting him listen to his body’s natural signals about when he’s full and when he’s hungry.

Many nutritionists believe that eating disorders – whether eating too much or too little – are the result of a child’s attempt to regain control over the “how much.”

The solution here is to change the foods you have in your home – and to make sure everyone eats the same meals. Putting your son on a diet, or allowing some family members to have dessert while he gets none, is cruel and will contribute to his candy-bars-in-the-sock-drawer problem.

So no more high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt foods in the house. Instead, buy a wide variety of healthier items and make sure you have plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and other healthy options around for snacks.

Oh, and stop telling your son that he has to eat less. He already knows that. Riba and Rose believe that kids who have good alternatives to choose from and are allowed to decide how much they want to eat, will, on their own, begin to eat better and stop when they’re full.

Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”

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