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How to Turn Fat Kids into Healthy Kids

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #80, 2008.

American kids are ballooning. What can we, as parents, do about this?
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Mary Pride

With sixteen percent of American kids ages 6 to 19 officially declared overweight or obese, parents are starting to worry. Especially since the numbers are rising alarmingly. In just eight years-from 1994 to 2002-the number of supersized kids rose 45 percent.

In issue #78, we explored some of the reasons for this size explosion, and why parents whose kids are ballooning likely aren't at fault.

Now it's time to look at what we can do if our own children are plumping up-or if they have already crossed the line into overweight or obesity.

Ballooning at Puberty

A word here about our own family's experience. Two of our daughters virtually "blew up" soon after entering puberty. Each gained 50 or more pounds in just a few months. They were gaining weight so quickly they were getting stretch marks. Our attempts to control their diet simply turned them into "secret eaters," with the evidence hidden in trash cans all over the house.

They didn't gain this weight on Twinkies and Milk Duds, either. Apples, yogurt, and other "good food" fueled the fat explosion.

Was it the soy infant formula I unwittingly mixed into their baby cereal? (Some researchers have implicated soy formula in pubescent weight gain.)

Was it the hormone- and antibiotic-laced meat, milk, and eggs we had unwittingly been purchasing in our grocery store? (Unless the product says the animals were not routinely fed hormones, they were.)

Could the burgeoning lack of vitamins and trace minerals in our food, due to harmful "factory farming" practices, have triggered my girls' out-of-control appetites?

Or was the cause genetic? I, too, had started ballooning at puberty. This stopped abruptly when a boy I liked made a comment about how I looked in orange stretch pants (hint: not fabulous). I went on a strict practically-no-carbs diet and powerful exercise regimen, lost 30 pounds, and kept it off for the next 20 years. But I well remember the out-of-control appetite that started my own teen weight gain.

Honestly, I didn't care what the cause was. Watching one daughter's weight start approaching 300 pounds-the same girl who was a skinny, hyperactive pre-teen-is enough to make any mother desperate. Having two of my little, formerly slim, girls both 100 pounds overweight is worse.

We did the obvious, of course. Once alerted to the meat-milk-and-eggs hormone situation, we switched to hormone-free products. We pushed exercise, bought diet books, and so on.

None of it helped.

However, a few years later, both daughters have lost 70 pounds each.

Now, I know that what works for one person might not work for another. But you can always count on me to research a topic to death. So, while trying to counteract my own children's teen weight gains, I found out many things that hopefully can help those of you in this position.

Food, Glorious Food

My education began with the composition of food. My own teen weight loss occurred in the days of "calorie counting." Lacking computers, you found a list or booklet with the calories for common foods and either memorized it or carried it with you everywhere.

Today, we are more sophisticated. We know that a food's fat and carbohydrate composition makes a big difference. So does its sugar content.

Will a food cause your blood sugar to spike? Is it loaded with grease? Is it heavy on carbs? If the answer to any of these is "yes," this food will not help you lose any weight.

But there's more! If the food contains high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners (and a lot of so-called "diet" food does), it will work against you. High fructose corn syrup doesn't increase the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin, like our old friend sugar does. There's evidence that artificial sweeteners also interfere with our bodies' ability to tell when to stop eating.

And there's even more. If your child is allergic to a food or food additive, this can also trigger uncontrolled eating.

So, the first step is to get some control over what kind of food your child or teen eats. "Healthy" for one person might not be "healthy" for another. But it's a sure bet that lots of fat, carbs, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners (yes, that includes diet soda) are not the way to go.

Learning about the "glycemic index" is also helpful. This is a measure of how much a given food will affect your blood sugar level. The lower a food's glycemic index, the longer it will "stay" with you and the longer you'll feel full. Connect the dots between traditional calorie counting and the glycemic index, and you'll quickly learn which foods should play a larger part in your child's diet.

Also, meals should be regular and timely. Skipping a meal is counterproductive because it blows down your blood sugar, thus causing the next thing you eat to affect your metabolism more than it otherwise would.

The allergy question is more complex. The American College for Advancement in Medicine (www.acamnet.org) maintains a database of its members that you can search by specialty, including allergy testing and treatment. The most common allergens are wheat gluten and dairy, so you could try cutting those out of your child's diet for a week and seeing if it makes any difference.

Portion Control

Here's where the rubber starts to meet the road. Your child can be eating the best, low-calorie, high-glycemic, hormone-free, additive-free, hypoallergenic food in the world-but if he eats too much of it, say hello to more pounds.

Portion control depends on two things:

  1. Attitude. The child has to want to lose weight.
  2. Proper portion sizes.

Every kid wants to have a normal-to-nice figure, but lots of kids aren't willing to face occasional hunger and deprivation in order to achieve it.

On any new diet, the first few days are the worst. By the fourteenth day, a new habit is starting to be built. So if you can get your child to stick with the plan for two weeks, you're halfway there.

To learn about proper portion size, type "portion plate" into a search engine. This will bring up links to several "portion plate" products. These are plates containing wells or cups into which you place the food for a meal. So much into the "meat" well, so much into the "salad dressing" well, so much into the "veggie" well... etc. They all come with educational meal-planning materials.

We Americans have been suffering from "portion distortion" for decades now, as restaurants and groceries package food in ever bigger servings. A portion plate brings it down to scale, prevents arguments and second-guessing, and helps kids start to get a "feel" for how much-and what kinds-of food should go into each meal.

One word of warning: these plates are designed for adults, so be sure to scale the portion sizes down for pre-teens.

Small snacks are OK between meals, provided the snacks are carrot sticks and the like. Plain cold water can be filling, plus cold water actually burns some calories (your body has to heat it up!).

Proper Exercise

We have become Indoors Nation. Kids used to run around outdoors all day. Now, parents are afraid to let their kids run free (for all sorts of good reasons).

The good news is that kids and adults can lose weight with as little as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week, and 45 minutes of weight training exercise three times a week. Young children will not be doing chest presses, of course. Their own bodies can be their "weights" as they do situps, push-ups, squats, lunges, etc.

The book Body for Life lays out the best overall eating and exercise plan I've seen. Teens can do many of the recommended exercises, while a set of light dumbbells can be used by younger children to target body parts not covered by push-ups, etc.

Anything you can do to increase your family's overall activity level will help. Start off easy and increase your efforts slowly. It's a lifestyle change, not a sprint.

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