15 November 2002

Experts weigh in on kids' obesity

With obesity levels among children higher than ever, experts caution against what would seem the logical solution: dieting.

With obesity levels among children higher than ever, experts caution against what would seem the logical solution: dieting.

Putting children on a diet can cause more problems than their obesity, says Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"Inadequate amount of calories or various types of calories can inhibit growth for children," she says.

Rather than restricting foods, the emphasis should be on weight loss through exercise, she says.

"Giving them adequate nourishment but then encouraging physical activity would be a much better way to avoid risking any nutritional deficiencies or stunted growth," says Sass.

Children should exercise moderately an hour each day, and Sass says that can be fun.

"This means 60 minutes total, not necessarily continuous, and can include riding a bicycle, skating, dancing, jumping rope, swimming, playing tag or taking part in physical education or sports during or after school," Sass says.

Simple modifications in household eating habits also can make a difference; for instance, making sure kids eat at scheduled meal times can keep them from overloading on snacks.

Dr. Nancy Krebs, a paediatrician and associate professor of paediatrics at the University of Colorado, Denver, says parents need to use caution and reason.

"Although they may have the best intentions, parents can sometimes do more harm than good by putting pressure on a child not to eat certain things or putting them on restrictions that then tend to backfire," she says.

"You really need to be in charge, but not to the point of nagging. It's much better to provide a healthy structure and then let a child make decisions within that structure," says Krebs.

Sass says food should never be given as a reward for good behavior or withheld because of bad behavior.

She says that's particularly true in households in which only one of several children is overweight.

"Isolating the child can have negative consequences," she says. "I have seen some parents restrict the intake of only one of their children, because he or she is overweight, and allow the other children in the house to eat whatever they want. This may mean that foods that are off-limits to one child are okay for another. This could potentially set up the child for an eating disorder."

Consult a doctor or a dietitian for any kind of food modification plan, Sass says.

"You would never want a child to go on a diet without the supervision of an expert, so a paediatrician or registered dietitian should be consulted."

And should a child be placed on any kind of programme, family support can be critical to its success, she says.

"It can really help to make healthy changes together. It's always more supportive that way and is helpful when it's a team effort," she says.


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