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How to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Are you concerned about your child's weight?

Given the overwhelming media coverage about the "childhood obesity epidemic," it's difficult to not be concerned. We hear almost constantly that U.S. children are getting heavier and that we must do something about their unhealthy diet and low physical activity. This sounds logical doesn't it? To address the increased incidence in overweight and obesity among our nation's youth, we just need to get them to eat healthier food and exercise more.

But, there's a big problem with this logic --- it hasn't worked.

Kids are still getting heavier despite a massive effort by governments, communities, schools, health associations, and parents to encourage healthy eating and physical activity --- with these positive results:

So, what's going on here? If eating healthier food and getting more physical activity are the keys to weight management, why is our population of kids still getting heavier?

In this report, I will explain why -- the real reason for the "childhood obesity epidemic" -- and then share what this means as far as your efforts to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight.

The fallacy of the traditional advice for weight management.

Despite what you've heard, the truth is that your child's weight is not affected by what types of food they eat or their level of physical activity.

I know this statement sounds heretical, so let me share the research behind it.

First, let's look at diet.

In a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on childhood dietary predictors of obesity, the authors arrived at the following conclusion:

"Overall, despite the prominent role that diet is presumed to play in promoting adiposity, the current review found no consistent evidence that infant or childhood diet is related to later fatness." Parsons, TJ, et al. Childhood predictors of adult obesity: a systematic review. International Journal of Obesity 1999; 23: S1-S107

Or consider the major study of 196 girls, 8 to 12 years old, who were evaluated over a four-year period to determine the relationship between consumption of energy-dense foods (baked goods, ice cream, chips, sugar-sweetened soda, and candy) and relative weight change during adolescence. Their conclusion?

"Overall energy-dense food consumption does not seem to influence weight status or change over the adolescent period." Phillips, Sarah, et al. Energy-Dense Snack food Intake in Adolescence: Longitudinal Relationship to Weight and Fatness. Obesity Research March, 2004; 12: 461-472

Another study of adolescent eating habits came to this conclusion:

"These data offer no evidence to support the widespread notion that obese adolescents eat more 'junk food' than non-obese adolescents." Bandini LG, et al. Comparison of high-calorie, low-nutrient-dense food consumption among obese and non-obese adolescents. Obesity Research 1999; 7: 438-443

In fact, almost all research studies on childhood obesity find that heavier children do not eat different foods than thinner children.

Now let's look at physical activity.

Here the scientific research is more inconsistent. Still, about half the studies show no association between physical activity and obesity --- where the average weight of more physically-active kids was not different from more sedentary kids.

For example, in a 2006 study, 545 children with an average age of 4.2 years were split into two groups. One group were given enhanced physical activity in the nursery (three 30 minutes sessions per week over 24 weeks) plus home based health education aimed at increasing physical activity through play and reducing sedentary behavior. No curriculum changes were made with the other group. The surprising result? --- after 6 and 12 months, there was no significant difference in body mass index between the two groups.Reilly, John, et al. Physical activity to prevent obesity in young children: cluster randomized controlled trial. British Medical Journal November 18, 2006; 333: 1041-1043

However, some studies do show a correlation --- but almost all of these use television viewing time as a proxy for activity levels. In other words, they assume that frequent TV watchers are less active. Well, it turns out that assumption might not be correct.

In a 2007 study 18,882 10-15 year old boys and girls were evaluated over a four year period to determine if television viewing, and other sources of sedentary behavior, are associated with leisure-time moderate/vigorous physical activity. The researchers found no association, which they said was consistent with most "cross-sectional studies in children and adolescents" and "almost all studies of television viewing and physical activity among adults." Taveras, Elsie, et al. Longitudinal Relationship Between Television Viewing and Leisure-Time Physical Activity during Adolescence. Pediatrics 2007; 119: 314-319

Are you surprised?

Although it's very logical that a child's weight is affected by what types of food they eat and their level of physical activity, there's almost no evidence to support this contention. The scientific research doesn't support it and our actual experience as a nation doesn't support it.

The real reason for the increased incidence in childhood obesity.

Here is a statement that is well supported by scientific research and people's experience:

**** If children pay attention to their body's natural regulatory eating signals, their weight will settle at a level that's healthy for their current stage of growth and development ***

Sure, some children first grow wide and then thin out, others grow tall and fill in, and some end up being smaller or larger than average. That's just the natural size-diversity of the human population. But, a child's growth will be just fine if his or her eating patterns remain normal --- which should be very common because disrupting them is so difficult to do:

"Based on their natural levels of eating and activity, children have a powerful and resilient tendency to grow consistently and predictably, in the way nature intended them to grow. It takes a lot to disrupt that regulatory ability to the extent that it distorts growth. Moreover, those disruptive factors have to be powerful and continuous. Being offered too much fat or too few fruits and vegetables won't do it. Being offered too-large portion sizes won't do it. Going to fast-food restaurants won't do it."Satter, Ellyn. Your Child's Weight -- Helping Without Harming. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press, 2005: 12-13

But, here's the problem. Despite how difficult it is to disrupt a child's natural regulatory eating signals, this almost impossible feat is occurring with a lot of kids.

Why is this happening? It's because many children experience self- and externally-imposed food restrictions --- due to media stereotypes of ideal body size, advertising by the diet and food industry, parent and physician concerns about kids being overweight, and overly-enthusiastic nutrition education.

These food restrictions may be real (e.g., weight-loss diet, banning eating foods which are considered unhealthy) or more subtle, such as parents or schools:

  • Pushing "healthy" foods
  • Labeling foods as "good" or "bad"
  • Limiting portions
  • Using low-calorie foods
  • Hiding certain foods
  • Deliberately running out of a child's favorite food
  • Questioning food choices ("are you sure you want that?")

These real or subtle (but readily apparent to the child) forms of food restriction result in the child being afraid that food might not be available the next time they're hungry, the specific food available now won't be available again, or there won't be enough food to provide satisfaction when they next eat.

These fears cause children to became preoccupied by food, lose touch with their natural regulatory eating signals and overeat when given the opportunity. And, as you know, such opportunities come along quite frequently:

  • Fast food restaurant where a child can access huge food portions for little money
  • Friends house where a child is away from their parent's eye
  • Local store or vending machine where a child can buy soda and candy with their allowance money
  • Party where a buffet-style meal makes a child's eating invisible to others
  • School where a child can access vending machines or foods from the ala carte menu

In other words, children have plenty of opportunity to abandon whatever explicit or subtle food restrictions are placed on them and "eat when the eating is good."

This phenomenon is widely known among eating specialists due to their own experiences and because it has been demonstrated in so many research studies. Here are some excerpts from three of the fourteen studies of which I am aware:

"In conclusion, restricting children's access to a palatable food within their eating environment does not promote moderate patterns of intake and paradoxically may actually promote the very behavior its use is intended to reduce. This research supports the view that restricting access can sensitize children to external eating cues while increasing their desire to obtain and consume the restricted food. These findings also suggest that the effects of restriction on children's eating will be particularly pronounced in families in which restriction is consistently in effect." Fisher JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children's behavioral response, food selection, and intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999; 69: 1271

"For example, the current obesigenic food environment is characterized by large amounts of inexpensive, readily available, palatable, energy-dense foods. In response to this environment, parents may attempt to limit children's consumption of 'junk' or 'unhealthy' foods by keeping foods out of reach or by placing constraints on when and how much food may be consumed. Experimental studies have shown, however, that restrictive feeding practices increase childrens' preferences for restricted foods, heighten responsiveness to the presence of palatable foods, and promote overeating when restricted foods are freely available." Birch, LL, et al. Learning to overeat: maternal use of restrictive feeding practices promotes girls' eating in the absence of hunger. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003; 78: 215

"Even during the preschool period, before any evidence for the emergence of dietary restraint, maternal feeding practices that restrict children's access to palatable foods can promote children's overeating. The use of restrictive feeding practices may occur in middle-class families in response to parental concerns about children's risk for overweight, which is seen as a threat to children's healthy development. However, rather than promoting moderation, these feeding practices can promote disregulated overeating in children." Shunk J and Birch L. Girls at Risk for Overweight at Age 5 Are at Risk for Dietary Restraint, Disinhibited Overeating, Weight Concerns, and Greater Weight Gain from 5 to 9 Years. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2004; 104: 1124

So, the reason our kids are becoming more overweight isn't because they are eating unhealthy foods or are not sufficiently active -- it's because their natural regulatory eating signals have been disrupted by the overwhelming emphasis on losing weight and eating healthy foods.

What you should do to help your child reach and maintain a healthy weight?

To ensure your children grow in a healthy way you must feed them reliably and without restrictions. If you do this, food will become less of a preoccupation and your children will eat according to their natural regulatory eating signals.

"In treating children or adults who have lost touch with their ability to know when they are full, it is both a huge relief and very scary for them when I recommend that we eliminate the rules defining too much food. Most are sure that they will eat the entire house and more without these rules. In reality, many do eat excessive amounts for a short while --- stocking up as their psyches wait nervously for the next restrictive diet to be imposed. But if such individuals can maintain their courage and continue to fill up with a reasonable selection of wholesome foods, eventually their subconscious minds register what is happening; they are free to eat according to their own internal hunger. At this point, something almost magical happens (or so it seems to those who have come to see themselves as insatiable). Suddenly, because they no longer need to eat in anticipation of the time when they will be cut off, they no longer need to eat it all right now. They begin to notice when they are full. They begin to trust that they can save some for later or can share their food, knowing they can get more if they choose." Kater, Kathy. Real Kids Come In All Sizes. New York: Broadway Books, 2004: 165

In other words, children must be 100% confident they'll be fed when they're good and hungry, foods they like, and enough food. How can you produce this confidence? --- by putting structure to snacks and meals your child can count on and not letting even the intent to restrict food creep into your feeding. For example, you should:

As far as what to serve, I'd recommend you relax and about food selection and, instead, just follow these five simple eating guidelines:

What about physical activity?

I said above that physical activity does not affect weight. That's true, but that doesn't mean it's not important. In fact, research consistently shows that physical activity is probably more important to a child's health than their weight status.

Therefore, you should be strongly encouraging your child to be more physically active --- but for reasons of fun and overall health, not as a method for losing or maintaining weight. Exercise shouldn't be punishment for gaining weight. Instead, your child should view exercise as activities they absolutely love to do. Your job as a parent is to help them discover those activities.

We believe martial arts is one of the activities your child may love. Sure, we focus on skill development, discipline and confidence -- but most of all we emphasize fun. Many children begin classes with us for one set of reasons, but they continue because they are having such a blast --- and increased physical activity with all its health benefits is the natural result.

This report was written by Allen Oelschlaeger, author of The Straight Scoop About Childhood Obesity and Finally, the Straight Scoop About Weight, Nutrition, and Fitness -- both published by Truths Publishing.

If you'd like to learn more about how martial arts can improve your child's self-confidence, please contact us (see our contact information below) and we'll be happy to answer any questions you may have. Or, better yet, let your child experience the confidence-building benefits themselves by taking advantage of our valuable Special Offer.

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