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Ask an Expert: Help with an overweight child

Learn more about EdNews Parent expert Theresa Byrne. This question came in after we ran a post about what to do when your daughter says she’s fat.

Q. What if your daughter IS overweight? How does a parent handle this issue without causing disordered eating? We have made healthy meals and snacks a priority in our home and physical activity a part of our lives, yet she still is overweight.

A. This is such a terrific question.  There are so many “moving parts,” no pun intended! The body needs food, water, exercise, managed stress, sleep and sunshine. (I added sunshine to this list, but there is scientific backing for it.)


With some detective work and some positive intentions, this doesn’t have to be a continued issue. And whatever you do, do not put your daughter on a diet.

First a little “food for thought.” We have such a focus, as a society, on weight and appearance.

It’s important to understand some of the underlying factors: Fitness level, muscle strength, structure or build, eating habits (later night eating or eating sugar at night can turn into stored weight), cravings, emotional style (does she express or hold emotions in?), stress level and sleeping habits. If she’s a taller girl, she may have larger bone structure and higher muscle mass.

Kids grow at different rates and that’s OK

I have worked with many kids who appear “heavy” to the normal eye, and especially during certain parts of their childhood. They are some of the fittest most athletic children but don’t appear that way all the time. Health is based on more factors than just weight.

The interesting part is that when these seemingly “heavy” kids grow up they end up perfectly within the “normal” range. The growth cycle is funny: Oftentimes kids will either grow “wide” before they grow taller, or they get really thin and long before they fill out.

Kids need approximately 60 minutes of intensive exercise six days a week. If she’s playing sports, I’m assuming that part is covered. In fact, some bodies may tend to “hold” more weight if the exercise is too extensive, mostly as a protective measure.  Too much exercise appears to the body like extra stress.

Is your child under stress?

Next, where she carries her weight is another component. Weight around the face, on the back or around the belly can be an overproduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is naturally produced by the adrenal glands to help us respond to stress and challenges. But during times of too much adrenaline release, the body stores unused energy (calories or food) as fat (like extra storage). What produces excess cortisol? Things like conflict or resistance think of it like the flight or flight helper. Or it can be overproduced from lack of sleep. Kids her age need about nine to 10 hours of sleep each night.

I lovingly liken it to a protective flotation device around the middle during times of difficulty. This is also when we become emotional eaters, often trying to “eat” our feelings, or get rid of uncomfortable emotions. Or it can be other emotional issues going on under the surface, things like feeling bad about ourselves, or a low self-esteem.

Typically, an “emo eater” will go toward things with a high amount of calories, fat or sugar. Salty or sweet, the food does taste good and solve our primal need for comfort.

Food is the fuel to help kids get that exercise and is just as important as the exercise itself.

A calorie is not a calorie

This is the part that may be the most frustrating to your daughter because not every type of food works the same on every body. A calorie is not just a calorie. Some kids can eat any amount of junk or food they please, and yet never gain an ounce! Some bodies don’t react as well to a heavy load of carbohydrates or sugar. And during stressful times, the food isn’t used as efficiently as it is during more peaceful times.

There are also typical food allergies that a body can create a “fight” with certain types of foods. I’m “sensitive” to gluten (very common), and I’m sensitive to sugar (less common).  You can take advanced blood tests, (called the ALCAT), do skin tests with an allergist, or I’ve seen results from more holistic methods through chiropractors or acupuncturists.

No easy answers

There is no easy way or one simple solution to this. I would never recommend even coming near the word “diet” when working with kids.

Here are some things to try:

• Introduce the idea of outside-the-box solutions when it comes to food and nutrition, even making it fun. One idea is “mindful” eating. What foods “feel” good, taste good, smell good … engage all the senses.

• Cut out sugars and high fructose corn syrup (and it’s mates) out of your diets. Move toward a more natural approach to foods, also cutting out processed foods that have been chemically altered to taste yummy. We don’t always know the results that these chemicals have on our bodies.

• Start the entire family on the track of learning about healthy or organic eating. As much as I love protein, you can even try going vegetarian one meal a day. Or a whole week. Change up the type of foods, trying new vegetables or everyone in the family has to create or cook one new healthy recipe a week. My friend, Julie Hammerstein, is a terrific nutritionist who uses the concept of Go, Slow and Whoa foods – the idea being that kids can learn which foods are good for them, are OK for them, and are not healthy, and also what a proper portion size looks like.

• Bring positive attention to foods, and not negative attention to your daughter’s shape. This is the ultimate goal. There are so many ways to tackle this situation, and it can be about the whole family.

Please keep us informed on your progress, and we can all share the lessons.

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