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Helping Your Overweight Child

Ways to develop healthy habits.


Healthy eating and physical activity are habits worth developing, as they are key to your child’s well-being. Eating too much and exercising too little can lead to weight gain and related health problems that can follow children into their adult years. You can take an active role in helping your child—and your whole family—to develop healthy eating and physical activity habits that can last for a lifetime.

Is My Child Overweight?

Because children grow at different rates at different times, it is not always easy to tell if a child is overweight. If you think that your child is overweight, talk to your health care provider. He or she can measure your child’s height and weight and tell you if your child is in the healthy range.

How Can I Help My Overweight Child?

Involve the whole family in building healthy eating and physical activity habits. It benefits everyone, and does not single out the child who is overweight.

Do not put your child on a weight-loss diet unless your health care provider tells you to. If children do not eat enough, they may not grow and learn as well as they should.

Be Supportive

  • Tell your child that he or she is loved, special, and important. Children’s feelings about themselves often are based upon their parents’ feelings about them.
  • Accept your child at any weight. Children will be more likely to accept and feel good about themselves when their parents accept them.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns about his or her weight. Overweight children probably know better than anyone else that they have a weight problem. They need support, understanding, and encouragement from parents.

Encourage Healthy Eating Habits

  • Buy and serve more fruits and vegetables. Remember that fresh is best, and frozen is a healthy option, too. If you have to reach for canned, be mindful of sodium and sugar content. Let your child choose items at the store to help them get excited to try new, fun fruits and veggies.
  • Buy fewer soft drinks and high fat/high calorie snack foods like chips, cookies, and candy. Instead, keep healthy snack foods on hand, and offer them to your child more often.
  • Eat a high-protein breakfast together. Skipping breakfast can leave your child hungry, tired, and looking for less-healthy foods later in the day.
  • Plan healthy meals, and eat together as a family. Eating together at mealtimes helps children learn to enjoy a variety of foods.
  • Minimize fast-food intake. If you do visit a fast-food restaurant, check the nutrition facts, and try the healthful options offered.
  • Offer your child water more often than fruit juice. Fruit juice might be a better option than soda, but it can be high in sugar and calories.
  • Don’t get discouraged if your child doesn’t want to eat a new food the first time it is served. Some kids will need to have a new food served to them 10 times or more before they will eat it.
  • Try not to use food as a reward when encouraging kids to eat. Promising dessert to a child for eating vegetables, for example, sends the message that vegetables are less valuable than dessert. Kids learn to dislike foods they think are less valuable.
  • Start with small servings, and let your child ask for more if he or she is still hungry. It is up to you to provide your child with healthy meals and snacks, but your child should be allowed to choose how much food he or she will eat.

Healthy snack foods for your child to try:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, cucumber, zucchini, or tomatoes
  • Cheese cubes or peanut butter on celery sticks or apple slices
  • Yogurt (plain, whole milk, and add your own fresh fruit to it)
  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Lettuce wraps

Foods that are small, round, sticky, or hard to chew, such as raisins, whole grapes, hard vegetables, hard chunks of cheese, nuts, seeds, and popcorn can cause choking in children under the age of four. You can still prepare some of these foods for young children by cutting grapes into small pieces, and cooking and cutting up vegetables. Always watch your toddler during meals and snacks.

Encourage Daily Physical Activity

Like adults, kids need daily physical activity. Here are some ways to help your child move every day:

  • Set a good example. If your children see that you are physically active and having fun, they are more likely to be active and stay active throughout their lives.
  • Encourage your child to join a sports team or class, such as soccer, dance, basketball, or gymnastics at school or at your local community or recreation center.
  • Be sensitive to your child’s needs. If your child feels uncomfortable participating in activities like sports, help him or her find physical activities that are fun and not embarrassing.
  • Be active together as a family. Assign active chores such as making the beds, washing the car, or vacuuming. Plan active outings such as a trip to the zoo or a walk through a local park.

Talk to your doctor before encouraging your pre-adolescent child to participate in adult-style physical activity such as long jogs, using an exercise bike or treadmill, or lifting heavy weights. His or her body might not be ready. Fun physical activities are best and safer for kids.

Kids need a total of about 60 minutes of physical activity per day, but this does not have to be all at one time. Short 10- or even five-minute bouts of activity throughout the day are just as good. If your children are not used to being active, encourage them to start with what they can do, and build up to 60 minutes a day.

Fun physical activities for your child to try:

  • Riding a bike
  • Climbing on a jungle gym
  • Swinging on a swing set
  • Jumping rope
  • Playing hopscotch
  • Bouncing a ball

Discourage Inactive Pastimes

  • Set limits on the amount of time your family spends watching TV and videos, and playing video games.
  • Help your child find fun things to do besides watching TV, like acting out favorite books or stories or doing a family art project. Your child may find that creative play is more interesting than television.
  • Encourage your child to get up and move during commercials, and discourage snacking when the TV is on.

Be a Positive Role Model

Children are good learners, and they learn what they see. Choose healthy foods and active pastimes for yourself. Your children will see that they can follow healthy habits that last a lifetime.

Find More Help

Your Health Care Provider

Ask your health care provider for brochures, booklets, or other information about healthy eating, physical activity, and weight control. He or she may be able to refer you to other health care professionals who work with overweight children, such as registered dietitians, psychologists, and exercise physiologists.

Weight-Control Program

You may want to think about a treatment program if:

  • You have changed your family’s eating and physical activity habits and your child has not reached a healthy weight.
  • Your health care provider has told you that your child’s health or emotional well-being is at risk because of his or her weight.

The overall goal of a treatment program should be to help your whole family adopt healthy eating and physical activity habits that you can keep up for the rest of your lives. Here are some other things a weight-control program should do:

  • Include a variety of health care professionals on staff: doctors, registered dietitians, psychiatrists or psychologists, and/or exercise physiologists.
  • Evaluate your child’s weight, growth, and health before enrolling in the program and watch these factors while enrolled.
  • Adapt to the specific age and abilities of your child. Programs for four-year-olds should be different from those for twelve-year-olds.
  • Help your family keep up healthy eating and physical activity behaviors after the program ends.

Adapted from The Weight Control Information Network.


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