Weight Control for Children and Teenagers

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Childhood is the time when food preferences and eating patterns are formed. It has been estimated that 30% of Australian school children are overweight. Unless intervention occurs early, overweight children will tend to become overweight teenagers, and in turn overweight adults.

Although weight problems may run in families, it is often the faulty eating habits of the parents that are passed onto children that are responsible for their overweight condition.

All overweight children can lose or control their weight even though they may never be thin. The family pet is often a good indicator of the family’s eating habits. The family’s eating habits may be the problem rather than genetics!

No child enjoys being overweight – they usually experience ridicule and teasing from their classmates. This may lead to lowered self-esteem and avoidance of sporting activities. Parents and school canteens both have an important role in encouraging healthy food choices.

Is Your Child Overweight?

Special height-weight charts are used to determine healthy weights for growing children and teenagers. They allow for wide variations in growth patterns and are more complex to use than height-weight charts for adults. Child health centres, doctors and dietitians usually have these charts.

However, you should be able to judge fairly easily whether or not your child is overweight. If there is excessive flab, particularly around the stomach and chest areas, it is safe to assume the child is overweight.

Strategy For Weight Control

It is not necessary for overweight children and growing teenagers to lose all their excess weight in a short period of time. Simply keeping their weight steady will effectively produce a loss of fatty tissue as they ‘grow into’ their weight.

An adolescent gains about 1kg for every centimetre of growth. If an overweight adolescent can maintain a stable weight, than every centimetre of growth is equivalent to 1kg of weight loss.

The following guidelines for different degrees of overweight may be useful.

  • Moderately Overweight (2.5kg):
  • Action: Keep weight stable for 6-12 months.
  • Quite Overweight (6-10kg):
  • Action: Lose 3kg gradually (.5kg /week), then maintain weight for 6-12 months.
  • Obese (11-20kg):
  • Action: Lose 7-10 kg gradually, then maintain weight for 6-12 months.

Calorie Intake

Overweight children and teenagers can easily tolerate a moderate reduction in calories. This usually means having slightly smaller-sized meals and cutting out high fat, high sugar snacks and drinks between meals.

Suggested Calorie Intake

For Overweight Children & Teenagers

Age Minimum Calories
4-7 1000-1400
8-11 1200-1500
12-15 (Male) 1200-1500
12-15 (Female) 1200-1500
16-18 (Male) 1200-1800
16-18 (Female) 1200-1500
Very Active Follow higher figure

Children should avoid crash and fad diets at all costs. Such inadequate food intake, even for short periods, may compromise their growth and development. Crash diets encourage unhealthy attitudes towards food and their own self-image . . . a potential problem that could lead to eating disorders.

Why Children Need Maximum Nutrition

  • For each kilogram of body weight a 5 year old child (about 18kg) needs twice as much protein, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and vitamin C as a 70kg man.
  • The same 5 year old child needs as much calcium and iron as a 25 year old man.

As the child’s stomach capacity is much smaller than that of an adult, food eaten by children needs to be fairly dense in nutrients in order to obtain the full quota of required nutrients. Thus there is little room for ’empty calories’ or high fat or sugar foods such as chocolate, soft drinks, lollies, pies and cakes. Such foods fill the stomach and supply excessive calories . . . without supplying the necessary nutrients.

Importance of Exercise

  • Overweight children and teenagers may not gain excessive weight from overeating, but rather from under-exercising. Children and teenagers need to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day, e.g. skipping, cycling, walking, playing in the park, training with a sports team.
  • Increasing physical activity levels in the teens and later years of childhood may be important in preventing obesity.
  • Weight loss improves the ability to exercise. Young people have an improved positive self-image when they participate in normal sporting activities.
  • Television can be fattening! Many children (and adults) watch more than 20 hours of TV per week. The more TV watched, the more likely a child is of becoming overweight. Watching TV reduces the amount of time a child would be exercising and playing. Furthermore, the food advertisements on TV encourage the consumption of fatty snacks.

School Canteens

The school canteen has an important role in reinforcing health messages from the classroom and home. Many school canteens are now providing healthier foods than in the past.

Contact your school canteen to see if they are following the dietary guidelines of low fat, low sugar and high fibre foods. If not, contact the school parent group or school principal to encourage a healthy change.

Food Hints & Suggestions

  • Use butter and margarine sparingly.
  • Limit the sale of high fat meat, pies, sausage rolls and sausages, chips.
  • Fill Pita (Pocket Bread) with baked beans, cheese and salad.
  • Try Pita bread as a pizza base.
  • Use more salad vegetables and fruits, e.g. fresh fruit salad.
  • Fill sandwiches with low-fat cheeses (cottage or ricotta), baked beans, lean meat, chicken, fish.
  • Use low-fat fruit yoghurts.
  • Vegetable and bean soups.
  • Baked potato in jacket with toppings.
  • Frozen diluted fruit juice or fruit pieces.

School Lunch Ideas

A variety of school lunches can be prepared at home. Try some of the following ideas:

  • Use pita and pocket bread. Different fillings can be used that will not fall out of the sides, e.g. curried egg and salad; baked beans, lettuce and grated cheese; ricotta cheese with sultanas.
  • Make sandwiches with wholemeal fruit bread.
  • Add variety to sandwich fillings, e.g. banana and ricotta cheese; tuna/salmon with lettuce.
  • Place salads in a sealed container.

Hints For Parents

  • An overweight child or teenager needs support and encouragement from parents and grandparents. Tell them that their efforts are worthwhile. If other members of the family are overweight then devise a friendly competition and help one another. Weight control is a family affair.
  • If a child is not hungry then do not try to force-feed him or promote the habit of ‘leaving a clean plate’.. Eating will soon lose its pleasure. Your efforts to prepare a meal can still be appreciated despite seeing an unfinished meal. Allow the child to leave the table without fuss. If a very small amount of food is eaten, ensure that desserts and snacks are not available.
  • Children are great imitators. Thus, adults should always set a proper example. You cannot expect a child to have a sandwich of lean meat and salad if Mum and Dad are going to have sausage rolls or a pie.
  • Avoid the temptation of high-fat and sugar snack foods by not having them in the house. A chocolate bar in the fridge can be too difficult to resist. Keep the fruit bowl well stocked and possibly allow one snack treat each week.
  • Do not prepare separate meals for the overweight child. This will only enhance his feeling of being different and be seen as a type of punishment. Healthy meals should be enjoyed by the entire family. It is only necessary to control the quantities eaten by the overweight child.
  • Avoid desserts which are high in fat and/or sugar. Fresh fruit is an ideal way to finish the meal; or try some low-fat desserts from the recipe section.
  • TV can be fattening. It discourages exercise and encourages the consumption of high-calorie snack foods. Parents and children should read the TV guide and agree on the programs to be viewed that day. Limit viewing to one hour per day or just a few hours on the weekend.
  • Make exercise a fun, family affair. Try a bike ride, a day at the beach, bushwalking. The Department of Sport and Recreation in your state will have other ideas for family exercise.
  • Teenagers demand their independence and usually like to have some control over their food choices. Be careful that your advice and encouragement does not become ‘nagging’ which deprives them of their choices.
  • Keep a diary of the child’s eating and exercise habits to help identify problem areas. A dietitian can be useful where an outside third party is required to lay down some ground rules. Children tend not to heed their parents’ good advice.
  • Encourage the eating of breakfast. A quick calorie-controlled cereal with low-fat milk or baked beans on toast will help morning concentration at school. No breakfast usually results in high-calorie snacks at recess and lunch.
  • Ensure that pocket money is being spent wisely – not on high-calorie snacks from takeaways and corner shops.
  • Provide cool water to satisfy thirst. Soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters provide ’empty calories’. ‘Low joule’ (sugar-free) soft drinks and cordials are widely available and well accepted by young people.
Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.

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