This week, I attended the Biannual Childhood Obesity Conference where health care professionals, educators and community advocates are gathering together to share strategies and coordinate efforts to help promote healthy eating among children.

One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about is the importance of helping children establish a healthy weight from an early age. After all, it’s much easier to start good habits than to change bad ones later.

This is one of the reasons why your family pediatrician measures and plots your child’s weight and height at every wellness visit (you can also do this at home). Your pediatrician then uses those numbers to calculate your child’s Body Mass Index (BMI), then plot the BMI percentile, which shows how your child compares to other children of the same age and gender. Not every pediatrician takes this extra step, so if yours doesn’t, be sure to ask.

Here’s a sample growth chart from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that shows how a child’s BMI may be plotted, noting where a child would be considered underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. (Note: a different weight-for-length chart is used for kids under the age of 2.)

growthchart_example1

If your child is overweight or underweight, you’d benefit from consulting with a dietitian or other trusted health care professional. But I always think it helps to hear what has been successful for others and where you can get the most bang for your effort. Here are two VERY simple strategies – with proven results.

Rethink Your Drink

You’ve probably heard a lot about limiting your child’s intake of sugary beverages. And there’s a good reason. Children are really good at controlling the amount of calories they eat, but they aren’t very good at controlling the calories they drink.  This means that if a child needs 200 calories at any given moment and you give her a hamburger, she’ll stop eating after about 200 calories, but if you give her a big juice drink, she’ll likely keep guzzling well beyond 200 calories.

So, let’s take a look at how this plays out with young kids.

  • For 1-year-old children: A child who keeps drinking from a bottle beyond 12 months old is more likely to be overweight because it’s easier for them to drink excess calories. One of the pediatricians who presented at the conference said she can usually tell the second she walks in an exam room whether or not a 15 month old is still drinking from the bottle.
  • For the 2- to 4-year-old age range: The difference of 120 calories a day, over time, is all it takes to push a young child from a normal weight status to an overweight status. Like the 1-year-olds, a bulk of these extra calories often come from calories they drink, but in this age-group, it’s usually from juice, juice drinks, flavored milk  or other sugar-sweetened beverages. (For reference, there are about 130 calories in 8-ounces of fruit punch). Read more about juice recommendations here.

For me, it’s reassuring to know that one simple change, like making water your child’s default beverage, can fairly easily and quickly translate to a healthy weight. Plus, water is free!

Integrate Physical Activity Every Day in Every Way

Exercise also makes a big difference in a young child’s weight status. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. For young kids, the same pediatrician I mentioned earlier said some of her patients’ parents have made big progress by simply having their child walk, instead of riding in the stroller. Slow, but simple.

For the two- to-four year old set, try integrating physical activity into every day play. For example, spend 5 minutes doing each of the following: galloping like a horse, playing hopscotch, hopping like a bunny, hula-hooping, dancing and playing tag and you have 30 minutes of quality exercise, which counts toward the recommended 60 minutes per day. For more tips on exercise, read this post.

Again, if you have concerns about your child’s weight, I’d strongly encourage you to consult you’re your doctor or a dietitian. The earlier you address the problem, the happier and healthier everyone will be.

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