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Make weight loss a family affair

Childhood obesity treatment — and prevention — begins at home. Here’s how to change unhealthy behaviors and create a healthy-weight environment for the entire family.

Childhood obesity is caused by eating too much and exercising too little. The solution is eating healthier foods and increasing physical activity, but it’ll be tough for your child to do it alone. The most effective way to treat — and prevent — childhood obesity is to adopt healthier habits for the entire family.

Change family behaviors
Rather than singling out your child, encourage the whole family to make healthy lifestyle changes. Consider these helpful hints:

Start small. Gradual changes are easiest to incorporate into the daily routine — and to maintain long term. Start by making a few small changes, such as turning off the TV during dinner, switching from soda to skim milk or water, and taking a family walk after dinner once a week.

Set goals. Set realistic, measurable goals for each family member, and then determine family goals. For example, your child’s goal might be to eat fruit for afternoon snacks. Your goal might be to take a brisk walk three days a week. The family’s goal might be to limit fast-food meals to once a month.

Recognize triggers. Be prepared for situations that may tempt you to fall back to your old habits. If you’re used to eating popcorn at the movies, for example, bring only enough money for admission — or agree that you’ll share a small carton of popcorn with your child rather than ordering separate treats.

Celebrate success. Frequent rewards can help keep your family motivated. When your child meets a goal — by asking for fruit rather than cookies after school, for example — offer praise and attention. When your family meets a goal, brainstorm healthy ways to celebrate your success. You might try a family movie night, a weekend picnic or a trip to the pool.

Keep it positive. Focus on healthy lifestyle changes, rather than your child’s appearance or a number on the scale. Remember, treating childhood obesity isn’t a race. It takes time and dedication to replace established behaviors with new, healthier behaviors.

Be flexible. It’ll take time to get used to your healthier habits. Encourage everyone to stick to the plan — but if the goals aren’t working for your family, consider making adjustments. It’s better to create a new plan than to stick to one that isn’t working.

Create a healthy-weight environment
As you work toward healthy habits and behaviors, create an environment that supports these efforts. For example:

Keep healthy foods on hand. Stock your kitchen with fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods and other healthy choices. Keep junk food and sugary drinks out of the house.

Eat in. Reduce the number of meals your family eats in fast-food and other restaurants. Better yet, sit down together for family meals. Plan weekly menus using new recipes or healthier alternatives to family favorites. Keep portion sizes reasonable and allow seconds only on salad, fruits and vegetables. Encourage your kids to get involved in shopping and meal preparation.

Build physical activity into the daily routine. Put as much emphasis on moving more as on eating less. Organize family outings that involve physical activity, such as walking to the library or taking a family bike ride. Include children in active chores, such as washing the car or walking the dog. Encourage your kids to participate in school or community sports — or to dance, jump rope or do other physical activities on their own.

Limit household screen time. Set reasonable rules for TV, computer and video game time, such as one to two hours a day for each family member — including mom and dad. Keep TVs and computers out of the bedrooms, and don’t allow eating in front of the TV or computer.

Be a positive role model
Remember, the best way to get your child excited about an active lifestyle is to commit to the changes yourself. Your actions teach your child what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat. You also encourage your child to be physically active every day if you make it a priority yourself.

To be a positive role model:

  • Eat nutritious foods
  • Don’t bring junk food into the house
  • Control your portion sizes
  • Save treats and high-calorie snacks for special occasions
  • Turn off the TV and computer
  • Include physical activity in your daily routine
  • Stress the importance of healthy lifestyle choices, rather than a number on the scale

Making lifestyle changes can be challenging, especially when you’re busy juggling the demands of daily life. If your family works together and supports each others’ efforts, however, you’re more likely to succeed. Eventually healthy habits will become routine — and you’ll be well on your way to treating childhood obesity and improving your family’s health.

– By Mayo Clinic staff