Children need a certain number of calories to grow and develop. But if a child takes in more calories than he or she uses, the body stores these extra calories as fat. In children who are otherwise healthy, weight gain most often happens because a child takes in more calories than he or she uses.
Why is it important for my child to learn good eating and exercise habits?
Good nutrition and regular physical activity can help your child achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Teach your child good eating and exercise habits when he or she is young. Those good habits will continue to benefit your child as he or she grows into an adult. According to the USDA’s MyPlate program, staying fit helps prevent the health problems that being overweight or having obesity can cause later in life, including:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Sleep apnea
- Some types of cancer
- Liver problems and arthritis (with severe obesity)
A child who is overweight or has obesity also may be teased or bullied about their weight. They may feel bad about their body or feel isolated and alone. These feelings can interfere with a child’s ability to learn, make friends, and interact with others.
It is important for parents to role model healthy behavior for their children. Be supportive as your child works to achieve a healthy weight. Use language that describes being healthy and strong. Avoid language that focuses on weight loss, dieting, and achieving a certain size. Most of all, be positive and encouraging.
Path to improved health
By teaching and encouraging healthy eating habits, you are giving your child important tools for a lifetime of healthy living. You can shape your child’s views on healthy eating by setting a good example.
Help your child make healthy food choices
- Be a good role model. Choose healthy foods and snacks for yourself.
- Have healthy snacks (for example, fruits like apples and bananas, and raw vegetables like carrots and celery) readily available in your home.
- Include plenty of low-fat proteins, vegetables, and whole grains in the meals you make.
- Be persistent in your efforts to introduce healthy food options. Children are not always open to new things right away. If you continue to offer healthy choices, you will improve the chances that your child will develop healthy eating habits.
- Teach your child how to make healthy choices for school lunches.
- Avoid fast-food dining. If you do eat at a fast-food or sit-down restaurant, choose the healthiest options available.
- Forget the “clean plate rule.” Let your child stop eating when he or she feels full.
- Meet nutritional needs primarily from foods and beverages.
- Choose a variety of options from each food group.
- Pay attention to portion size.
How can I encourage my child to be more physically active?
As a parent or primary caregiver, you have a lot of influence on your child. Although you may not realize it, what you do affects the choices they make. If your child sees you being physically active on a regular basis, they will be more likely to be active, too.
Make physical activity part of your family’s normal routine. For example, you might take the dog for a walk together each morning or play basketball before dinner every evening. Find physical activities that you enjoy doing together as a family.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that all children participate in physical activity for at least an average of 30-60 minutes a day. The AAFP encourages parents and schools to make physical activity a priority. Prolonged periods of physical inactivity should be discouraged in both the home and school.
Limit screen time
Limit your child’s screen time to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day. Screen time includes playing video or computer games, surfing the Internet, texting, and watching TV. Set a good example by limiting your own screen time, too.
Things to consider
Watch for any changes in your child’s usual eating or exercise habits. For example, does your child seem to be eating out of boredom, for comfort, or in response to other emotions? This is called emotional eating. Emotional eating can lead to weight gain. It may also be a sign that your child is struggling to deal with feelings like depression or stress.
Pay attention to the warning signs of an eating disorder. These include:
- Being overly concerned about calories
- Having anxiety about body weight
- Not eating at all
- Binge eating
- Exercising excessively
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are unusual in children, but they can occur. The risk increases as a child grows into a teen and young adult.
If you have any concerns about your child’s behavior, be sure to talk to your family doctor.
Questions for your doctor
- How much should my child be eating?
- How often should my child be eating?
- What are the correct portion sizes for my child?
- How often should my child exercise?
- My child is a picky eater. How can I get him or her to eat more?
- My teen says he or she is always hungry. Can that be true?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.