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Help for Overweight Children

ADULT OBESITY has been called one of America's major health problems. But for increasing numbers of overweight children, there is a similar cause for concern.

Contrary to the popular image of the "jolly" fat child, most overweight children are not happy. All too often their fat is the butt of classmates' jokes. Because they're more clumsy and lack agility, they find themselves left out of many activities. Frequently, such children are social outcasts.

Parents need to understand that they quite often share the responsibility for their children being overweight.

A recent study by Dr. Jules Hirsch and several colleagues at Rockefeller University showed that overfeeding of infants and young children may build up an excess number of fat cells. All children are born with approximately the same percentage of fat cells in their bodies. Yet, obese adults have a much higher percentage of fat cells than normal-weight individuals. These researchers concluded that the extra fat cells may have been accumulated early in life through overfeeding. The result would be that such children are predisposed (though not condemned) to a lifetime of obesity.

Childhood obesity is a very serious matter. The problem should be solved as early as possible. For, the older the child, the more difficult it will be to help him reduce. And if you have an overweight child, the first step to correcting the situation is to discover exactly why he is that way; then you can begin to do something about it. The following points will be of help in nearly every case.


I. Emotional Stability

One obvious reason for obesity in children is overeating. But what is often overlooked is that an obese child's unbridled appetite may result from a lack of emotional balance.

Parents should take an active part in helping their child to develop a wholesome and balanced personality. The child should be taught how to be responsible and productive and to cultivate a variety of interests and pursuits. He should be able to experience a sense of accomplishment, and also learn how to cope with disappointments. He should be taught to have a healthy outlook on life.

Success, of course, depends on a secure, stable and balanced home environment. When there is some emotional stress in the home, youngsters may turn to food for consolation or security. For example, if a child is deprived of one of the greatest needs of all — the feeling of being loved and appreciated — he will suffer emotionally. His urge to satisfy his hunger for love may manifest itself in habitual overeating.


II. Avoid "Overfeeding"

If parents overindulge or overprotect their children, a serious pattern of overeating may also result. Many mothers unduly fret about their children having too little to eat. "I want my child well-padded so that if he gets sick, he won't be weakened by a loss of weight" some parents say.

In pushing unwanted food on their children, however, such parents teach youngsters to stuff themselves in an involuntary effort to please their parents. This ingrains poor eating habits that may persist throughout life — and may cause early death. The need for a child to eat what is placed before him should be balanced by placing the right amount of food on his plate.


III. Exercise

Overeating may explain many cases of child obesity — but certainly not all. Another factor now gaining more widespread attention is lack of exercise. In fact, inactivity may be a major cause for overweight children.

Dr. Jean Mayer, one of the foremost researchers in the field of obesity, has said, "Repeated studies have shown that the great majority of obese adolescents eat less than the average non-obese adolescents of the same sex. The inactivity of the obese adolescent easily accounts for the calories which permit excessive fat deposition" (Overweight — Causes, Cost, and Control).


IV. Parental Example

Take a careful look at your own example. Are you overweight? Studies show that if both parents are obese, there is an 80 percent chance their children will become that way as adults. If both parents are slim, 90% of their children will be slim. Therefore, it is important to ask yourself: "Do I consistently overeat?" and "How much exercise do I get?" Children usually mimic their parents in many ways. Diet and activity are not exceptions. If you are setting a poor example in these areas, children will automatically pick up wrong eating and exercise habits.

However, by setting the right pace for your overweight child, you are supplying the confidence that he desperately must have to change. Many youngsters often lack the self-discipline or motivation to effectively reduce. But your new example can provide the encouragement and hope that he really needs.


V. Choosing Right Meals

For instance, teach your child to eat well-balanced, nutritious, and relatively low-calorie meals. A typical weight-loss diet should contain roughly 1500 to 2000 calories. But don't get too picky about diet restrictions. Stress the positive — tell your child what he may eat; not just what he should avoid.

If snacking has been a problem, see that your youngster eats only at regular intervals.

Your child may not initially like his new manner of eating. But you can overcome this problem if you make the food as appealing as possible. There are many low-calorie cookbooks that will assist you.


VI. Avoid Fad Diets — Especially With Children

By all means, do not place your youngster on any fad or crash diet. These diets not only fail to instill lasting diet habits, but they can do irreparable damage in children. Such diets are nutritionally unbalanced. Some skimp on vital protein — others on carbohydrates or fats. But all three elements in proper amounts are essential for sound health in growing children. Children need more protein than adults, so don't apply adult diets to children without professional guidance.


VII. Encouragement

Next, you must seek to make your child more active. But how can you encourage him to get more exercise? Constant nagging — such as "Why do you sit and watch television all day?" — won't do the job. It will only succeed in creating more frustration.

Instead, make exercise a family endeavor. Include your overweight child in family hikes or bicycle trips. Encourage him to cultivate an active interest in sports by teaching him to play tennis, volleyball, or to participate in a number of other activities. He may feel self-conscious and awkward at first. But with real patience, praise, and encouragement on your part, your child will gradually gain more self-assurance and will even begin to join in with other boys and girls in their physical activities.

In fact, encouragement should be the key word in any reducing program for obese children. Such youngsters have received enough embarrassment about their size — they don't need more. Genuine concern and love — but not "smother love" — combined with a sound regimen of diet and exercise will produce results in most cases.

Your child will then be on the road to a healthier and happier life.