With skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity in the developed world, many kids are now faced with the daunting prospect of having to lose weight. This has meant tens of millions of kids, some as young as 2 or 3, being put on a diet.

When should you put your child on a diet?
Anytime a child is overweight, changes need to be made to help them drop these excess pounds. As mentioned on our page discussing overweight children, kids have a naturally high metabolism, and more of their calorie consumption goes toward growth. So when a child is overweight, it’s a sign that something is seriously off. But is putting a child on a diet the right way to address this problem?

Is it okay to put children on a diet?
In its correct usage, “diet” simply refers to the composition of food and beverages one consumes to sustain themselves. In this sense, parents of overweight children absolutely need to pay special attention to their children’s diet. Unhealthy diets play a big role in the obesity epidemic, and the typical American diet leaves much to be desired. I’ll discuss how to make healthy changes to diet here shortly.

However, children SHOULD NOT be put on the type of traditional diets that most people think of when they hear the word “dieting,” for a number of reasons:

A) First of all, a child’s diet is largely related to the family’s diet. Last time I checked, kids don’t do their own grocery shopping. So if a child is in need of being put on a diet, it’s time for the entire family to make changes. These changes should revolve around healthier lifestyle choices, not traditional diets.

B) Traditional dieting may be an option for adults, but it isn’t a wise course of action for children, whose bodies are still growing and developing. kids need nutrients and calories for growth, and traditional diets that restrict certain foods (or classes of foods) are unhealthy. “Please do not put your child on a low-fat or low-protein diet–in fact, they shouldn’t be on any weight loss diet at all,” says Dr. Alan Greene. “Consider eating appropriate amounts of a variety of healthy foods rather than choosing low-carb, low-fat, and so on.” (Greene, 2009, p. 227)

c) Traditional dieting can give children a complex about food, one that is difficult to erase and can stay with them their entire life. “Once it’s put in your head, that’s a lifelong thing,” says Wendy Williams, whose parents put her on a strict diet of tuna and mustard (with the occasional side of grapes) after she started gaining weight in elementary school. Psychological complexes about food wind up hindering a person’s ability to make healthier choices. Repression creates anxiety and obsession, and food obsessions don’t help kids achieve these goals.

D) Most of all, traditional diets don’t work–for adults or children. Restrictive diets are hard to sustain, resulting in a back and forth see-saw pattern wherein a person loses weight and then gains it right back again, which further disrupts a person’s metabolism and makes it easier for them to gain weight in the future.. Oppressive dieting regimens keep a person’s focus revolving around food, essentially putting them at war with themselves–asking them to behave one way while their mind amplifies the thoughts that draw them in another direction.

“We actually find that children who diet gain more weight than their peers,” says pediatrician Alison Field of Children’s Hospital Boston. (Oliwenstein 2008) This appears to be due to the psychological effects and consequences of repression: kids tend to obsess more and eat more overall when their portions are controlled.

“Overweight adults who were overweight children confirm that focus on diets and weight creates greater issues,” says psychotherapist Stacey Kaiser, “including weight gain, lower self-esteem and depression. For long-term success physically and psychologically, focus on healthy habits and taking care of the body.” (Kaiser, 2011)

Just because we don’t recommend a traditional dieting approach for children doesn’t mean you should sit back and let the problem slide. Many children are overweight, and this is a health emergency as urgent as any other. It just means you need to correct this problem the proper way: Through better diet and exercise in the form of lifestyle changes that you and your family can sustain.

Dieting through better diet: The proper way for children to lose weight

You don’t need to restrict children from certain foods, or even limit how much they eat in order to help them lose weight. As you can read about in our book +Healthy, Fit Families,+ people can even lose weight eating nothing but Twinkies and doughnuts, so long as they aren’t exceeding their daily allotment of calories. Such a diet would deliver very little nutrition, however, and 1,000 calories of junk food is a lot less food than 1,000 calories of fruits and vegetables. I mention this only to illustrate that you needn’t place any foods off-limits.

What parents do need to do is make better food choices available to their children as a matter of routine, while limiting (not eliminating) the unhealthier choices. This allows children to eat to their satisfaction without exceeding reasonable calorie limits for their age group. (See our section on kids & Calories for calorie guidelines.) Once you have an idea of your child’s caloric needs, chart their food intake for a week or two to see how far out of balance they are and which areas need the most improvement. Don’t forget to include beverages from this tally.

Now it’s a simple matter of providing children with healthier food choices:

  • Limit their intake of sweetened beverages, which can be a hidden source of empty calories.

  • Reduce their consumption of fast food.

  • Increase fruit and vegetable intake, especially as snacks. Most families could stand to drastically increase the percentage of calories that come from fruits and vegetables. Ideally, these should supply around half your calorie needs.

  • Increase consumption of natural, unprocessed foods and reduce your reliance on processed foods, which contain unnatural starch combinations that have been linked to obesity. The more food you prepare yourself from natural ingredients, the better.

  • Limit sugar intake while allowing the occasional treat.

  • Consider replacing meat with fish twice a week.

This is the only dieting advice you and your children will ever need. You don’t need to place food off limits, and you certainly don’t need to have children go hungry. It’s a simple matter of replacing unhealthy choices with healthier ones in a manner and combination that works for you. After you get a child’s diet under control, it’s time to address the other side of the obesity equation: exercise for children.