About 25% to 30% of American school-age children are overweight, which puts them at risk for disease and low self-esteem. Is your child at risk? One way to know for sure is to check with your pediatrician, who will determine if your child is more than 20% above the ideal weight for her height and age. If your child is moderately overweight, there will probably be no talk of dieting at this age. Instead, the emphasis will be on lowering the rate of weight gain as the child grows taller. Stalling weight gain can be accomplished by changing eating habits, lowering fat intake, and increasing a child’s level of physical activity. Don’t punish or scold your child – use positive reinforcement. Make physical activity fun and rewarding, and involve the entire family.
If a child is more than 40% overweight, a doctor-guided weight loss program may be suggested. During the course of the program, the emphasis should be on adopting a healthier lifestyle for the long term, not just on losing weight now. No matter what your children’s size or shape, help them love themselves by praising their positive strengths and skills. It is important to de-emphasize weight and emphasize feeling healthy and strong. Above all, never put a child in this age group on a diet without consulting your doctor first. Restricting a child’s diet too much can interfere with growth and development. A registered dietitian who specializes in pediatrics can be a big help.
Eating disorders are of special concern as children head into adolescence at the end of this period. Young girls seem to be particularly at risk for developing a poor body image. They see society’s obsession with thinness and then starve themselves (anorexia nervosa) or binge and purge (bulimia). Although eating disorders are generally not a problem until after puberty begins, parents should be alert to any danger signs an older school-age child exhibits. Preoccupation with weight and size, a drastic reduction in food intake, or a lack of weight gain despite a large appetite can mean a child may have an eating disorder. Check with your pediatrician for help, since eating disorders can lead to serious health problems and even death. Counseling can successfully guide these children through this risky time.
While all parents of school-age kids should be stressing the importance of physical activity, it’s also important to monitor the eating habits of young athletes. Although everything possible should be done to offer them optimal nutrition to support their efforts, it’s also crucial to avoid some risky behavior often associated with the search for a competitive edge. Your child’s athletic performance depends on the same balanced diet that will keep her noncompetitive classmates sharp. Make sure your budding baseball star or soccer lover is getting enough calories to support her level of physical exertion. You can do this by adding carbohydrates, such as potatoes, rice, pasta, and beans, to your child’s diet. These are excellent sources of energy.
Teaching your child, especially your athlete, to enjoy water is one of the healthiest gifts you can give. Children should be urged to drink plenty of water before exercise and every 10 minutes or so during their activity. For every half hour of strenuous activity, your child should drink an extra 8 to 12 ounces of water – the drink of choice. When drinking sports drinks, avoid those that are high in sugar, which can cause cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. Also, make sure your child balances practice and performance with adequate rest and relaxation. These are as necessary to well-being as proper nutrition.
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