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Five Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference for A Child's Weight

Healthy snacks for kids

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past thirty years. Most of these are linked to calorie imbalance –eating too much and moving too little. Thankfully, it may just take a few small changes to make a positive impact in reversing this trend.

In 2010, more than one third of children were overweight or obese. Immediate health effects include having risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and prediabetes, the condition of having high blood glucose levels. Children and teens who are obese are at a greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems that can last into adulthood.

Healthy Snacks Free of the Top 8 Food Allergens

Obviously, improving diet and getting a child more physically active are two ways to combat childhood obesity. But even beyond that, there are simple measures families can take to improve a child’s weight status. Four new studies have found that smaller plates, more frequent meals, eating a healthful breakfast, reducing screen time, and getting adequate sleep can all lead to lower BMI in kids.

More Meals, Smaller Portions

A team of researchers publishing in The American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics found that skipping meals was not the best path to reducing the number of calories a child consumes. In fact, eating smaller meals and healthful snacks frequently during the day can keep a child from being overly hungry and therefore reaching for more caloric junk food.

In a review of 11 studies involving close to 19,000 kids, researchers found that youth who ate more often – typically at least four to five times per day – were least likely to be overweight or obese.

Jennifer Fisher of Temple University reminds us that children are more likely to eat only when they feel hungry, while adults are more influenced by other factors including the cost of food and the emotions that can prompt mindless noshing. “Kids are much less complicated eaters than adults are,” says Fisher.

Use Kid-Sized Plates

One way to reduce the amount of food a child eats at a single meal is to switch to smaller plates and bowls. In a study of 42 first graders who served themselves lunch, those who used child-sized tableware ate less than those kids who used larger plates. Though all kids ate the same food (penne pasta and chicken nuggets), the ones who used adult-sized dinner plates took in 90 more calories.

“It certainly seems like something parents can easily incorporate into their daily lives without a lot of work and effort,” said Fisher.

Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day

Previous studies have linked eating breakfast with maintaining a lower body mass index (BMI) over time. A new study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, took a closer look at what was being served at breakfast to find the best foods for kids.

Regularly eating cereal for breakfast has been linked to a healthy weight for kids. Cereal eaten even just a few times a week was associated with a 2 percentile decrease in BMI. "Moving BMI percentile down 2 percentage points, that's not going to cure the obesity epidemic, but it is a significant difference," the authors said.

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"(Cereal) is an excellent breakfast choice, it's simple, and gets those essential nutrients that children need, especially low income minority children," who tend to be hit hardest by childhood obesity and related health problems, said Dr. Lana Frantzen, the lead author. Kids who ate cereal had higher intakes of vitamin D, B3 (niacin), B12, riboflavin, calcium, iron, zinc and potassium.

Limit Screen Time – Especially TV

Sitting in front of a screen – computers, tablets, smartphones etc – all have an impact on weight due to the fact that physical activity is limited. But out of all of the screens you should limit in your home, TV seems to be the most important one to monitor.

In new research conducted by a team at Boston Children’s Hospital, teens who watched several hours of television a day weighed about 13 to 14 pounds more than kids who watched less. In addition to reducing time spent moving and playing, television bombards kids with advertising for high-calorie snack foods, says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health.

“If you’re paying attention to TV, you’re not paying attention to hunger cues,” says Rich, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Big picture, it’s not how much time any screen is on. It’s what screen is on, what content is on that screen and what else is my child doing while absorbing that content.”

Get Kids to Bed Early

Increasing the number of hours of sleep that teens get each night may reduce the prevalence of obesity according to a new study from researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The study found that the optimal amount of sleep for 14 to 18 year-olds is about 10 hours of sleep per day, resulting in a 4% reduction in the number of overweight teens.

"The psychosocial and physical consequences of adolescent obesity are well documented, yet the rate has more than tripled over the last four decades," says lead author Jonathan A. Mitchell, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Penn Medicine. "What we found in following these adolescents is that each additional hour of sleep was associated with a reduced BMI for all participants, but the reduction was greater for those with higher BMIs. The study is further evidence to support that getting more sleep each night has substantial health benefits during this crucial developmental period."


Center for Disease Control and Prevention - Childhood Obesity Facts

Jennifer O. Fisher et al. Plate Size and Children’s Appetite: Effects of Larger Dishware on Self-Served Portions and Intake. Pediatrics peds.2012-2330; published ahead of print April 8, 2013,doi:10.1542/peds.2012-2330

Panagiota Kaisari MSc et al. Eating Frequency and Overweight and Obesity in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics peds.2012-3241; published ahead of print April 8, 2013,doi:10.1542/peds.2012-3241

Lana Balvin Frantzen PhD et al. Association between Frequency of Ready-to-Eat Cereal Consumption, Nutrient Intakes, and Body Mass Index in Fourth- to Sixth-Grade Low-Income Minority Children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Volume 113, Issue 4 , Pages 511-519, April 2013

Michael Rich MD MPH et al. Characteristics of Screen Media Use Associated With Higher BMI in Young Adolescents. Pediatrics peds.2012-1197; published ahead of print April 8, 2013,doi:10.1542/peds.2012-1197

Jonathan A. Mitchell PhD et al. Sleep Duration and Adolescent Obesity. Pediatrics peds.2012-2368; published ahead of print April 8, 2013,doi:10.1542/peds.2012-2368



I like all the suggestions in this article and have referenced it in another article on type 2 diabetes in children. There is one more suggestion I would like to add, and it is perhaps the one that makes the biggest difference: educating the parents of these children about the importance and long-term benefits of following all of these suggestions (including diet and exercise). Unless parents (or other responsible adults in a child's life) are 100% behind these changes, they won't happen.