All those involved in looking after children and young people should make sure that positive messages are given about healthy eating and that these are reinforced by carers through role modelling and positive attitudes to a healthy lifestyle.
Carers should promote a healthy body weight and body image by providing an environment in which the children and young people have the opportunity to eat healthy food, and where the play and exercise they enjoy is actively enabled and encouraged.
Children’s body shapes change as they grow and make the transition from infancy through childhood to adolescence. So it’s not surprising that the parents and carers of overweight children often don’t notice when the child is heavier than her or she should be. Sometimes, friends and relatives might refer to an overweight child as having ‘puppy fat’, which implies they’ll grow out of it. Some children do, but many go on to gain additional weight.
Measuring your child's weight
To find out whether your child is a healthy weight you can:
- use an online calculator, like the one at Weight Concern
- talk to the family health visitor or the child’s school nurse, who will be able to work it out for you
Don’t use adult BMI calculators or charts, as the same categories don't apply to children. A healthy weight for a child is different for girls and boys, and for the different ages and stages they go through.
Many children and young people in the UK are too heavy for their age and height. Unhealthy excess weight (which refers to both overweight and obesity) is a complex issue, but essentially it is taking in higher levels of energy than is expended. Children and young people often eat and drink too many calories and do not burn up enough of these calories through their activities. The excess energy is stored in the body as fat.
Just a few extra calories each day can, little by little, add up over the space of a year or few years and result in people being overweight. Having even a little bit too much every day swings the balance from weight maintenance to weight gain. Being overweight as a child is linked to being overweight as an adult and consequently having a greater risk of developing conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, some types of cancer and depression.
Talking to the child about their weight
Some carers might be anxious about talking to children and young people about their weight because they don’t want to make them overly concerned about their body image. This is understandable, but many children who are overweight already know this, but don’t want to raise the issue. It’s important that you talk to the child about their health. Some suggestions are:
- avoid sitting them down for a serious talk about their weight. If you do this or keep reminding them about it, then the subject of weight can become a bigger issue than it needs to be
- try to focus on the issue of good health – eating well and taking regular exercise. If you focus on weight as the issue then you will establish a false notion that being slim equals good health. Losing weight is secondary to sticking to healthy eating patterns and regular exercise
- try to talk to children and young people as and when issues arise – they might have found their clothes don’t fit them or remark that the other children at school are smaller than them. They may say that they are being teased by children at school
- think up practical things you can do – set goals for the whole family so the child or young person doesn’t feel as though they are being punished and look at what you can all do to help each other
- alk to the child’s school nurse, GP or health visitor. Look to see if there is a GP referred weight management service available locally
Being underweight is not better than being overweight, it is equally undesirable and is also associated with an increased risk of ill health. Among children and young people, it may contribute to tiredness, limited physical activity, becoming ill more often and an inability to concentrate. Being underweight might be a sign of a food intolerance, bowel disorder or unrecognised illness or infection.
Children and young people who need to gain weight should eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. They also need to keep active to stimulate their appetite. If low weight does not seem to be caused by a poor diet or does not respond to dietary measures, carers should seek advice from the child’s GP and other health professionals to check if there is an underlying physical disorder.
People come in a wide range of body shapes and sizes and many different body shapes can be healthy. For many young people the relationship between food, eating and body weight can be highly complex. It is therefore essential that carers deal sensitively with issues related to being underweight and overweight. We are all different, but all wonderfully made and beautiful creations.
Carers themselves need to ensure they do not contribute to poor body image among children and young people by using derogatory language about their own or other people’s body shapes, or by commenting on people’s food choices.