Preventing Childhood Obesity: Tips for Parents

Childhood Obesity is on the Rise

The number of overweight children in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years. Approximately 10 percent of 4 and 5 year old children are overweight, double that of 20 years ago. Overweight is more prevalent in girls than boys and in older preschoolers (ages 4-5) than younger (ages 2-3).

Obesity increases even more as children get older. For ages 6 to 11, at least one child in five is overweight. Over the last two decades, this number has increased by more than 50 percent and the number of obese children has nearly doubled.

For most children, overweight is the result of unhealthy eating patterns (too many calories) and too little physical activity. Since these habits are established in early childhood, efforts to prevent obesity should begin early.

Determining if a Child is Overweight

Parents should not make changes to a child's diet based solely on perceptions of overweight. All preschoolers exhibit their own individual body structure and growth pattern. Assessing obesity in children is difficult because children grow in unpredictable spurts. It should only be done by a health care professional, using the child's height and weight relative to his previous growth history.

Helping Overweight Children

Weight loss is not a good approach for most young children, since their bodies are growing and developing. Overweight children should not be put on a diet unless a physician supervises one for medical reasons. A restrictive diet may not supply the energy and nutrients needed for normal growth and development.

For most very young children, the focus should be to maintain current weight, while the child grows normally in height.

The most important strategies for preventing obesity are healthy eating behaviors, regular physical activity, and reduced sedentary activity (such as watching television and videotapes, and playing computer games). These preventative strategies are part of a healthy lifestyle that should be developed during early childhood. They can be accomplished by following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines provide general diet and lifestyle recommendations for healthy Americans ages 2 years and over (not for younger children and infants). The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines can be found on Following these guidelines can help promote health and reduce risk for chronic diseases.

Promote a Healthy Lifestyle

Parents and caregivers can help prevent childhood obesity by providing healthy meals and snacks, daily physical activity, and nutrition education. Healthy meals and snacks provide nutrition for growing bodies while modeling healthy eating behavior and attitudes. Increased physical activity reduces health risks and helps weight management. Nutrition education helps young children develop an awareness of good nutrition and healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

Children can be encouraged to adopt healthy eating behaviors and be physically active when parents:

  • Focus on good health, not a certain weight goal. Teach and model healthy and positive attitudes toward food and physical activity without emphasizing body weight.
  • Focus on the family. Do not set overweight children apart. Involve the whole family and work to gradually change the family's physical activity and eating habits.
  • Establish daily meal and snack times, and eating together as frequently as possible. Make a wide variety of healthful foods available based on the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children. Determine what food is offered and when, and let the child decide whether and how much to eat.
  • Plan sensible portions. Use the Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children as a guide.

What Counts as One Serving?

Grain Group

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta
  • 1/2 cup of cooked cereal
  • 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal

Vegetable Group

  • 1/2 cup of chopped raw or cooked vegetables
  • 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables

Fruit Group

  • 1 piece of fruit or melon wedge
  • 3/4 cup of juice
  • 1/2 cup of canned fruit
  • 1/4 cup of dried fruit

Milk Group

Meat Group

  • 2-3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish
  • 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans, or 1 egg counts as 1 ounce of lean meat. 2 tablespoons of peanut butter count as 1 ounce of meat.

Fats and Sweets

  • Limit calories from these.

Four-to-6 year-olds can eat these serving sizes. Offer 2-to-3 year-olds less, except for milk. Two-to-6 year-old children need a total of 2 servings from the milk group each day.

  • Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching TV. Eating in front of the TV may make it difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness and may lead to overeating.
  • Buy fewer high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. Help children understand that sweets and high-fat treats (such as candy, cookies, or cake) are not everyday foods. Don't deprive children of occasional treats, however. This can make them more likely to overeat.
  • Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad." All foods in moderation can be part of a healthy diet.
  • Involve children in planning, shopping, and preparing meals. Use these activities to understand children's food preferences, teach children about nutrition, and encourage them to try a wide variety of foods.
  • Make the most of snacks. Continuous snacking may lead to overeating. Plan healthy snacks at specific times. Include two food groups, for example, apple wedges and whole grain crackers. Focus on maximum nutrition - fruits, vegetables, grains, low-sugar cereals, lowfat dairy products, and lean meats and meat alternatives. Avoid excessive amounts of fruit juices, which contains calories, but fewer nutrients than the fruits they come from. A reasonable amount of juice is 4-8 ounces per day.
  • Encourage physical activity. Participate in family physical activity time on a regular basis, such as walks, bike rides, hikes, and active games. Support your children's organized physical activities. Provide a safe, accessible place outside for play.
  • Limit the amount of time children watch television, play video games, and work on the computer to 1 to 2 hours per day. The average American child spends about 24 hours each week watching television. Reducing sedentary activities helps increase physical activity.

Taken from Mealtime Memo for child care. A fact sheet for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, from the National Food Service Management Institute, The University of Mississippi.