How to prevent obesity in children


Worried that your child's 'baby fat' may be turning into something more serious? Here's GMA parenting contributor and author Ann Pleshette Murphy with some good advice to help parents prevent obesity in children.

How to prevent obesity in children

Obesity in children is a huge problem. With Type 2 diabetes on the rise, it is the #1 health threat to children.

  • Don't ban all junk food or turn it into such a big deal that your kids crave it all the more.
  • Don't turn meals into a battle zone. Sitting down to eat as a family is a good antidote to obesity. Studies show families who eat at the table together eat less, and eat better foods, than families who eat at fast food restaurants or in front of the television.
  • Use a color code, with "green light", "red light" and "yellow light" to signal how healthy or unhealthy foods are. Then let the kids make their own choices -- they love to be the experts.
  • Teach your kids about portion control. One way is to get divided plastic plates and teach them to fill two of the four sections with fruits and vegetables, the other two with protein and healthy carbs.
  • Teach your kids to be savvy consumers. Children are bombarded with an average 40,000 junk food ads a year. Help them understand the sales pitch and what's really behind the advertiser's message.
  • Don't forget to teach them the importance of exercise. If you exercise, you set the right example.
  • Food should never be a power struggle.

KATRINA: I'm Katrina Szish with Joining me is parenting expert Ann Pleshette Murphy, parenting expert and author of the Seven Stages of Motherhood. Welcome.

ANN: Thanks.

KATRINA: We're talking about obesity today and it's a problem that affects millions of Americans and it's a problem that seems that be growing, but this is something that has been starting with kids at a very early age. How do you prevent it?

ANN: Well it's a huge problem and is first of all one of the number one health threat to young children because the rates of diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes is now called Type II diabetes because it's now so prevalent in children. So it's something that parents really have to pay attention to. You can't get rid of the junk food altogether; it's probably not a good idea because you don't want to make it seem so special and so off-limits so that they crave it even more. With that said the most important thing is to not have food become a power struggle. You don't want meal time to be a battle zone. You want it to be a pleasurable experience. In fact sitting down with the family is a very important and very effective antidote to obesity because what studies have found is that families that eat together, first of all, they're talking. They are not eating as quickly. If you're watching the television, you tend to eat more. If you are sitting in a fast food restaurant, you tend to eat more than if you bring the food home and sit at your own dining room table. Yes, you still may be eating too many calories, but you're not going to eat as many.

KATRINA: Now you said that you can't eliminate, of course, junk food altogether, but if you eliminate most if it from your home, how do you prepare your kids to go to school, go to friend's houses where junk food may be much more prevalent. How do you get them to make the right choices when you're not there helping them?

ANN: Well first of all when they're old enough to make the choices themselves, they often are at the age where they love to be the experts about things. So in fact you can do very simple things by sorting foods by red light foods and green light foods and yellow light foods and helping them understand what's healthy. One of the nice tricks you can do is to get these plastic plates that are divided and they usually are divided by half and then two quarters. Teach them that the half should be full of fruits and vegetables, that the other quarter should be divided between carbohydrates and proteins. Even a seven, eight year old can begin to understand what those food groupings are and take a certain amount of responsibilty for their own nutrition.

KATRINA: You're making portion control into a bit of a game.

ANN: Exactly. The more you can have fun with it, the more you can have the message that food is one of the great sources of pleasure in life and healthy food is one of things we need for our bodies.

KATRINA: How much responsibilty do parents have to their children from becoming obese? You can see an overweight child and think oh that kid eats too much, but how much of the blame should really be on the parent?

ANN: Well frankly most of the blame should be on the parent, but I don't really like even thinking about blame because I think that's it's a huge challenge for parents these days because what they're up against again in what is marketed to kids is just staggering. Children see an average of 40,000 ads a year, most of them for junk food. So a parent who's up against that kind of bombardment has a tough time. There's lots of things you can do. You can first of all help kids become savvy consumers and question what they see on television, what they see online. The other thing is exercise is absolutely critical. So what you model becomes probably the most important tool that you can use to help your kids remain healthy.

KATRINA:How do you prevent all of this advice about healthy eating and exercise from going to the other extreme and causing an eating disorder?

ANN: Well it's a great question. I mean eating disorders are caused by a lot of different things and there's no question again that if food has been a source of a power struggle; kids have felt that they need to take control of this and they do so in a way that's really not normal, so they become anorexic or bulimic. We know that there's lots of causes of that. That's really not mom or dad's fault if a child becomes bulimic or anorexic. It's very important however that even from an early age that the message isn't that you're a good girl or a good boy for cleaning your plate. It's you must have been hungry and getting them to pay attention to their own body signals.

KATRINA: Okay excellent points all around, thank you so much Ann Pleshette Murphy for joining us.

ANN: Thanks.


meet theexpert
  • Ann Pleshette

    Ann Pleshette Parenting Contributor, Good Morning America, ABC Ann Pleshette Murphy has been the Parenting Contributor for Good Morning America since November 1998, and her “American Family” segments are a recurring feature on GMA. Murphy is the author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind (Anchor Books) and travels the country speaking to mothers’ groups about such themes as striking a balance between work and family, wrestling with guilt and setting loving limits. She was Editor-in-Chief of Parents magazine from 19 more about this expert »

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