Dieting's not the answer for child


April 19, 1994|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,Special to The Sun

Q: I have been overweight all my life, and I hate it. Now my 6-year-old daughter seems to be putting on weight, in spite of the fact that I have tried to get her to watch what she eats. What can I do?

A: There are no easy answers for children who have inherited a tendency to be fat. We can give you some suggestions; but before we do, we want to address your concern directly. It has the potential to become an even bigger problem for your daughter than her weight.

Your letter suggests that your size has led to negative feelings about yourself. While that may be understandable because our society discriminates against people who are overweight, it will not benefit your daughter to find out that her parent has low self-esteem and is transmitting that to her because of her size. Your daughter will not benefit from nagging that suggests you will love or approve of her more if she is thin.

What will happen if she can't be?

Avoid thinking about putting your daughter on a "diet." Rather, do everything you can to help her develop good habits. (Dieting is a bad one.) What you do for your daughter should be for yourself and all members of your household. You will all benefit, and your daughter will not feel she is different or somehow bad.

Get all "junk foods" (high sugar, fat or salt) out of the house. Keep plenty of healthy snacks, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. Let your daughter eat when she's hungry. It is better for her to snack when she's hungry than to store up a big appetite waiting for meals and then overeat. Concentrate on serving foods that are low in fat and high in fiber -- plenty of breads (without high-calorie spreads), fruits and vegetables. If your daughter likes to drink milk, be certain that you keep only skim milk. Meat and cheese portions should be small and low in fat. Save dessert for special occasions. Don't ever insist on a clean plate!

Emphasize an active lifestyle without using the dreaded word exercise. Your daughter can have fun and burn calories at the sametime. She could play outside with her friends, ride a bicycle or take a walk with you. She could be on a swim team, take dance lessons or play soccer. Help her find things she can continue to do for many years that are both active and social.

Limit her "screen" time, not as punishment but to promote activity. We would suggest a maximum of one or two hours a day. Television, video and computer games slow children down. A child who is sitting is burning few calories.

Don't expect quick results. Your daughter should not lose eight; she should just gain more slowly, allowing her height to catch up. This is an investment for a lifetime that should help your daughter avoid both the bad feelings you have experienced and constant criticism from you. If you do all this and she remains a bit plumper than her peers, shrug your shoulders and help her say, "So what?" and mean it.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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