What parents can do
Although the new guidelines may encourage pediatricians to monitor the weight of their patients more closely, parents should be proactive about doing so as well.
The easiest and best way to gauge whether your child is overweight or obese is to track their BMI using growth charts, which show the national percentiles for children by age. (Printable growth charts for boys and girls are available on the website of the CDC.)
Parents should monitor their children’s weight more or less from birth, experts say. “If they shoot up on the growth charts in terms of weight, that’s when you have to be aware of the situation,” says Zied. “You want to see consistency across the growth charts rather than any fluctuation.”
Periods of rapid weight gain have been shown to predict future obesity, says Samuel S. Gidding, MD, the chief of pediatric cardiology at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
Of course, prevention is also key. Parents need to choose good foods for their children as soon as they stop breast-feeding, says Dr. Gidding. “A lot of kids are being overfed, and they’re being fed foods that really have no business being in a child’s diet: sugar beverages, excess juice, lack of fruits and vegetables, too many french fries,” he says. “Parents really need to provide nutritious food while the child’s a baby.”
As children get older, parents should teach them about nutrition, appropriate portion sizes, healthy eating habits (such as sticking to regular meal times), and the importance of being active, according to Zied. These messages are often more successful if they’re delivered in kid-friendly terms, she adds. “Try to teach your kids what’s in it for them,” Zied says. “Are they going to run faster, throw the ball farther, get more baskets in? Teach it in terms that relate to them, because the health messages get lost.”
Above all, parents should remember that their kids are likely to adopt their eating and exercise habits, good or bad, and that they should therefore model healthy behavior.
“You have to practice what you preach,” says Zied. “If parents don’t have healthful habits, you can’t really expect kids to have those either.”