By Madeleine Ortiz
As a parent, the realization that my child is overweight and at risk of developing health complications can be terrifying. We want to protect our children and help them be as healthy as possible, but how do we do that? Dr. Julie St-Pierre, associate professor of pediatrics and McGill University in Montreal, says the last thing we should do to help our children get healthier is put them on a weight loss diet. She gives five reasons why… and explains what to do instead.
1. To this day, no diet has ever proved effective for children
Yep, you read that correctly. Every year, the Scientific Community for Young People and The American Heart Association review in detail the ensemble of weight loss diets that are available around the world. No diet has even proved to be effective for children in making them healthier, at least in the mid to long term. In fact, studies show that children will likely regain almost double any amount of weight lost on a diet.
2. Restrictive diets can harm academic success
Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows that it takes up a lot of mental real estate. Children are constantly developing and learning, and when they are placed on a low calorie diet, their concentration and focus will be negatively affected. Study after study has shown that children who are placed on diets see a decrease in their academic performance.
3. Physical activity will likely decrease when on a diet
Physical activity plays an important role in the health of a child. It boosts self-esteem and promotes better sleep. When a child is placed on a diet, they usually aren’t getting the adequate nutrients they need to play sports, ride bikes or just enjoy the basic physical activities that are so enjoyable and imperative for children.
4. A child’s biology will fight a diet
When a child goes on a diet, his or her body notices. Energy slumps can occur causing the body to send signals to the brain to get that energy back. Children will start feeling sluggish and hungrier than they ever were prior to going on the diet. In addition to moving less, the child’s biology will encourage the child to eat more. It will be frustrating for the parent, but especially for the child who will not be able to understand why they are so hungry yet not allowed to eat.
5. Diets are detrimental to self-esteem
Self-esteem is one of the most important indicators of whether or not a child will reach a goal. When a child is put on a diet it reinforces the messages they are likely already hearing from their peers and society at large, that there is something wrong with them. Their self-esteem is damaged and their chances of feeling confident and able to achieve is significantly lowered. Unfortunately, the effects of diet on self-esteem can follow children into adulthood – and negatively impact what they will be able to achieve in their adult life.
Diets are not good for children, but being overweight often comes with health complications – so what should parents do? Dr. St-Pierre says the first step parents can take is to reach out for support from a healthcare professional. She cautions that finding a provider comfortable working with children with excess weight and obesity might be difficult, but don’t give up! While looking for a clinic or specialist that will work with children, start making positive changes at home that the whole family can benefit from. A few steps she suggests:
- Avoid bringing ultra-processed foods into the house and focus on having the entire family eat high-quality, minimally-processed and whole foods instead.
- Limit screen time and enforce bedtime routines and good sleep habits.
- Consider enrolling children in organized physical activity – not only for increased movement, but for increased confidence.
There is no miracle solution, but the right health care provider, small changes and most important supportive families, can make big differences in the health of a child.
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