The Everything Parent's Guide to The Overweight Child by Paula Ford-Martin
Copyright © 2005 by F W Publications Inc.
Used by permission of Adams Media. All rights reserved.
To purchase this book, please visit Adams Media Bookstore.
Your child didn't gain weight in isolation, and he can't be expected to lose it as a solo act either. Putting together a realistic meal and exercise plan for the entire family to follow is a crucial step in ensuring your child's success. In some cases, this may involve only a few minor lifestyle adjustments. For other families, however, it may mean a complete food and fitness makeover.
A Family Affair
No matter what your family structure, helping your child achieve a healthier weight should involve the entire household. It doesn't matter whether you belong to a traditional nuclear family or single-parent household, whether you are a guardian or your grandchild or parent of one child or a dozen – everyone can benefit from good food, exercise, and the emotional connections that are strengthened when families work towards good health together.
Walking the Walk
When several members of the household have weight issues, the benefits of a family fitness plan are obvious. But sometimes, when parents and siblings happen to be slim, there's a misconception that the only person with a "fitness problem" is the child who is overweight. Take a long, hard look at your family's physical fitness. Is your dietary intake well balanced, and does it consist of plenty of nutrient-rich whole foods? Do you all get the recommended thirty to sixty minutes of daily exercise? Are you spending enough time together to support these important health goals?
The World Health Organization estimates that between 60 to 85 percent of the world's population leads a sedentary lifestyle, and the resulting lack of fitness may be among the ten leading global causes of death and disability. So if you aren't an active bunch, you aren't alone. The good news is that you have the chance to do something about it now.
FACT: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, seven in ten American adults don't exercise regularly. Sedentary lifestyles are estimated to contribute to 300,000 preventable deaths annually from diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
For parents who were already eating nutritiously and exercising regularly, a fitness program would be nothing out of the ordinary – but perhaps it's a new concept to involve your children fully in your efforts. Maybe you work out at a gym daily, but you don't encourage physical activity during family time. Or maybe you eat healthful meals away from home while stocking your shelves with the deep fried, sugar-coated, trans-fatty snacks your kids always ask for. If so, it will be necessary to realign your personal fitness goals to take your child's needs into account as well.
Fostering Family Unity
Americans are busier than ever, but as a nation we are getting less exercise than ever before. That particular paradox is frequently what creates a weight issue in the first place. Between a parent's work and social obligations, and the child's school commitments and extracurricular activities, it can be hard to find time to come together as a family. Sit down today and commit to at least one weekend day that you can designate as family time. If you work weekends or have other critical weekend commitments that just can't be moved, then choose at least two weeknights, weekday afternoons or other time periods when your schedules align, and block them off for family use. More is of course encouraged, but for now make that minimum commitment.
Obviously when and how long you can spend time together will be variable, and your schedules may require readjustment as short-term events and commitments pop up. The important thing is to make an ongoing commitment to spending a specific amount of time together each week and sticking to it. It is insignificant if your family's together time falls on a Tuesday one week and a Thursday the next, as long as you make sure to find the time.
Essential: Households with two working parents, and those who work second or third shifts or alternating schedules, can leave little daytime light for family fitness. If your child spends many waking hours with a caregiver, it's imperative for that individual to get involved in exercise and nutrition routines.
If a look at your calendar makes you think that twice a month is a more realistic goal, you need what's commonly called a reality check. Really examine your own commitments, do the same for your child's and then think about where adjustments can be made. Over extending yourself isn't good for you or your children. It may not be realistic to eliminate activities related to your job or workplace, but you may be able to scale back your social or community obligations. Or perhaps cutting back on time spent working is a feasible goal. Prioritize until you've carved out time for your weekly family commitment.
Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of overhauling your family's daily routine? Don't be. Remember that you don't have to change everything at once, and you may be surprised by how many positive routines your family already has in place. Start by assessing your habits – both good and bad – by keeping a family fitness log for a week. Write down all meals and snacks (including what, how much, and where) and physical activities. Everyone in the family should be part of the assessment. If some members are less than forthcoming with the information, do your best to estimate. Try not to interrogate; you'll only put family members on the defensive and probably won't get an accurate answer anyway.
Another approach is to give each member of the family a notebook to tally his or her own meals and activities. With this method, everyone is on the honor system. You should stress that this is a non-judgmental exercise designed not to pick out individual faults, but to assess where you might improve your family routines.
Once you have a week's worth of family information logged, schedule a family meeting to sit down together and analyze your data. Look for trends, like meals being consistently skipped and family members eating in shifts rather than together.
Some additional questions to ask include the following:
- How many snacks and meals were eaten on the go or while performing other activities?
- Is your daily food intake roughly equivalent to the USDA recommended daily allowance for each food group? (See Chapter 6 for more information.)
- Does your daily diet contain plenty of fresh, whole food, or is it mostly processed and packaged goods?
- Do you cook appropriate amounts and serve reasonable portions? Are you eating just until you're full or until the plate is clean?
- How much water are you drinking? Are your other beverages of choice full of empty calories>
- What kinds of meals are the kids getting at school? Do they have access to vending machines or other sources of candy and snacks at school or at extracurricular activities?
- Are the kids getting at least sixty minutes of moderate physical activity each day, and are the adults getting at least thirty minutes?
- How often does the family engage in physical activity together?
Once you've analyzed where your family is in terms of nutrition and exercise, it's time to set some goals for where you'd like to go together.
Goals should not be a magic number on the scale. Instead you should focus on changes you can make right now to work towards a healthier family. It's fine to start with smaller goals, such as eating your five-a-day servings of fruits and vegetables, walking your kids to schools instead of driving, or packing a nutritious lunch for your child instead of sending money for corndogs and tater tots.
You should also have long-term goals established that include nationally recognized standards for exercise and nutrition. That includes an hour of daily exercise for kids (thirty minutes daily for adults) and daily food intake that follows the USDA guidelines. No one – and no one family – is perfect, and while some weeks you may meet those objectives, there will be plenty of times you won't. The important thing is that they're always there to aspire to. Chapter 6 has more information on USDA standards and other nutrition issues, and Chapter 10 addresses exercise for children.
Don't Forget to Make it Fun
You don't want your children to start referring to your evening walk as "the nightly death march." If they aren't enjoying an activity you choose for the family, by all means, try something different until you find one that they do. Let your children take turns choosing family outing. Roller- or ice-skating, snowboarding, bicycling, kayaking, canoeing, football, tennis, Frisbee, golf, bowling – the list is endless. Reluctant to plan a trip to the skating rink or to rent a canoe, just because you've never done it before? All the more reason to try these things out! You may find a new activity your child can be passionate about, or you may discover that it isn't your cup of tea, but at least you've had fun together trying it.
Alert! Up to 40 percent of American families seldom eat together, despite abundant research pointing to the benefits of family meals. A 2003 Columbia University survey found that kids who ate with their families between five and seven times each week were 21 percent less likely to try tobacco and alcohol. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that adolescents who eat meals with their families four or five times weekly were significantly more likely to eat more vegetables, fruits, and dairy products.
Mixing It Up
Remember that you don't have to make a big financial investment in sporting good or equipment to mix things up. Rentals are relatively cheap, and when even those may be a strain on the budget, you can find other ways to add entertainment value to less glamorous activities like family walks. Try some new locales, such as a local forest preserve or beach, and make your trek a nature hike. Add a list of items each child has to find on your journey, and you have a scavenger hunt. If your older children enjoy personal challenges, buy them an odometer for their bikes or a pedometer for their waistbands, and let them try to reach new distance goals with these activities. Whatever you choose to do, make it interesting and fun for your child. Don't hesitate to change gears if you current fitness plans are greeted with groan and rolling eyeballs.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Family fitness shouldn't be about keeping up with the Joneses, or even about keeping up with mom and dad. You and your children each have unique interests and abilities that you should encourage and nurture. Sometimes this will involve tailoring your fitness routines to accommodate these differences.
It's possible that dad's bad knee makes ice-skating a bad choice, while mom's fear of heights has her wary of a day on the ski slopes. Split up some family activities to accommodate different physical needs and interests. Mom may take one child skating while the other skis with dad. Later that day or even at the next family outing, the kids can switch places.
Adapting to family members' special needs it also important in the dietary arena. When your child has food allergies and your spouse is on a cholesterol- or sodium-restricted diet, you have those added needs to consider when balancing your family food plan. The good news is that if you've already been paying careful attention to what your family is eating, you probably won't have as difficult an adjustment to planning healthy meals the whole family will enjoy.
Everyone's A Winner
Children who are not competitive or athletically inclined will start to dread family activities if they revolve around contests in which one person strives to be the best or beat the others. While the ages of your children will influence what activities you share in as a family, you should also remain aware that kids of similar ages may have very different levels of expertise at certain things. If this is an issue for your family, and your child seems to feel intimidated by a sibling's athleticism, be sure to focus family time on noncompetitive activities that can be enjoyed at a variety of fitness levels. Hiking, swimming, and cycling may be good fits for your family.
Although it's important to commit to regular family fitness time each week, also recognize that a particularly difficult homework assignment, an unplanned meeting at the office, a school play, or any number of other happening may occasionally get in the way of your family plans. Be willing to work with the schedule, and adjust it as necessary. You should make it clear, however, that all family members who can speak and plan their own social activities without parental involvement are responsible for letting you know about upcoming events so you can plan ahead. You can't relay
exclusively on the memory of your younger children, but you can ask that they take responsibility to the best of their ability.
Question: My kids have a knack for telling me about a scout meeting or a big game the morning of the event. How can I plan family time when things are so last-minute?
Keeping track of your younger child's calendar should be easy. Unless you pester them for details, however, older kids and teens don't always clue Mom or Dad in to important events until the last minute. At the start of each school week, ask your child if there are any important assignments or school-related events planned for the week, and note them on the family calendar. Encourage your kids to write in events on the calendar, too.
You should also remain flexible about what you're going to do and have options in mind should weather or other uncontrollable factors throw a wrench into your plans. When rain puts the kibosh on your biking adventure, a visit to the indoor community pool may be a backup plan.
Finally, flexibility is a must when trying to plan meals for picky eaters. Don't force-feed your child broccoli if she hates it, no matter how good it is for her. She can have carrots and greens every night if those are the vegetables she knows and loves. That doesn't mean the rest of the family has to forsake broccoli. You can also think about preparing broccoli in different ways for other family members – your picky eater may decide it looks pretty good after all in a different dish or form.
Providing a wide variety of tasty, nutritious foods is the best way to please a family member that may have very different tastes. To keep yourself or your spouse from having to spend hours on end in the kitchen, give children their food choices before you prepare the meal. This way, you can ensure that they're going to eat at least something that's on the menu, and food won't go to waste.
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