Involving Family May Help Overweight Kids Change Habits

AHA: Parent and Caregiver Support Key to Healthier Lifestyles in Overweight Kids

By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 23, 2012 -- Parents and grandparents can play a unique role in reversing obesity by encouraging healthy lifestyle changes in overweight children, suggests the American Heart Association.

A new statement issued by the organization calls for more family involvement when treating childhood obesity. It describes specific ways parents and caregivers can be "agents of change" to support healthier behaviors in overweight and obese kids.

"In many cases, the adults in a family may be the most effective change agents to help obese children attain and maintain a healthier weight," Myles Faith, PhD, says in a news release. "To do so, the adults may need to modify their own behavior and try some research-based strategies."

Faith, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, chaired a group of 11 experts who wrote the paper.

The paper reviewed the main research-based strategies for successful behavior change in family-based treatment of childhood obesity, and it explains ways that a parent can be actively involved in the process.

One example given is how a parent and child can identify a specific behavior to change, such as drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. To meet this particular goal, a parent can agree to buy fewer bottles of soda each week, and can discuss some alternatives the family can drink instead, such as water or flavored seltzers.

Next, a parent and child may commit to writing down their daily intake of sweetened drinks and water, and review this at the end of each day. If goals are met, parents can use praise, hugs, high fives, and other low- or no-cost rewards to encourage the child. For unmet goals, the parent and child can discuss the obstacles that got in the way and what to do differently in the future in an encouraging manner.

Best Ways for Parents to Help

The panel of experts also reviewed multiple studies of family-based treatment programs to determine if greater parental involvement resulted in more weight loss in overweight children. They found mixed results, and the researchers say that further research needs to be done to determine which forms of parental involvement are helpful.

According to the AHA's recommendations, some successful weight loss strategies that parents can use with children include:

  • Identifying, as a family, specific behaviors that need change
  • Setting goals and monitoring progress; clearly defining weight loss goals, such as limiting TV and computer screen time to no more than two hours a day
  • Providing a home environment that encourages healthier food choices, such as having fewer tempting sweets in the home but having more fruit available
  • Encouraging physical activity and being a positive role model for an active lifestyle
  • Praising a child's progress and avoiding food as a reward or punishment
  • Treating "slips" as learning opportunities -- a chance to make different choices the next time they happen


Parenting Guide: Healthy Eating for Kids See Slideshow

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SOURCES: Faith, M. Circulation, published online Jan. 23, 2012.News release, American Heart Association.

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