Written by Doctor G

Eating concerns for a 7yo and her mom

I am struggling with a combination of difficult and related issues while raising my seven-year-old daughter. She is a beautiful, healthy girl, who, going by BMI is quite overweight, although not obese. She is a smart, confident kid. The worst thing I could do is to give her a complex about her weight; I know that. Yet I am having trouble with a few things. First of all, how do I get her to lose weight, or certainly not gain weight, without making her hyperaware of what she eats in a way that would lead her to feel restricted and deprived? She likes healthy food, but she loves eating, thinks about meals way in advance of having them, and she loves sweets. She already has the beginning of “issues” (my fault, no doubt), as she’ll apologize if she wants something sweet when she’s already had something that day. She recently said, when I asked her why she wants to eat if she’s not hungry, “eating makes me feel good.”

Of course it does. I get that. I also get that I’m projecting my own issues onto her. Yet I see posters every time I go to the doctor’s office about all the diseases that she’s at risk for and how much better her chances of a healthy adulthood would be if she were ten or more pounds lighter.

One more complication. Her younger brother is slim and fit. She has recently accused me of limiting her eating while I let him have whatever he wants. I don’t give him whatever he wants, but I am inclined to allow him extras and not give him a hard time if he wants dessert. How can I be playing into such damaging and sexist body image standards? How do I keep her both physically and psychologically healthy?

Rupinder, in Dover, DE

A: Rupinder, this seems to break down to two questions. First, how can you help your daughter get to a healthy weight? Second, how can you do that and help her maintain a positive self-image?

You are right that it is healthier to focus on maintaining her weight and letting her height catch up, rather than ever suggesting she lose weight. You don’t want her to diet, you want her to build healthy habits.

Those guidelines are pretty easy to list. No more than 6 oz of sweetened drink a day, and no soda. No more than 1-2 hours total of screen time per day. Sixty minutes – one full hour total – of vigorous exercise each day, at least. Breakfast every day, dinner supervised by an adult, and eat out less than once per week. And for kids this age, at least 11 hours sleep each night.

It sounds like you understand and follow the nutritional guidelines. Make sure you are focused on the physical activity. Vigorous means running around, out of breath, heart pumping. Find a bunch of activities she likes. If she is a kid who is happier sitting still, then parent involvement is crucial. Dance parties, jump rope contests, skating or tree climbing or tag – be creative.

Side note – girls whose fathers exercise regularly are more likely to exercise themselves as kids and as adults.

Now for the harder question. How can you talk to her about this without damaging her?

It sounds like you’ve already started. She verbalized that eating makes her feel good and you acknowledged that you understand and agree. Now start a series of conversations with her to help her find a list of activities that give her the same satisfaction as emotional eating. Listening to particular music or cuddling with a family member or reading a certain book may do this. Creating a project or planning a playdate or taking an early morning walk might do it. When she has this list (that she will hopefully add to her whole life), encourage her to tell the difference between “stomach hungry” and “heart hungry.”

When she is “heart hungry” encourage her to look at the list and do one of the activities there. If she gets the emotional satisfaction but is still hungry, then it is a good time for a healthy snack.

As for the “fairness” issues with her little brother, you need the same rules for both kids. Even though they have different body types, they need to learn the same healthy habits. Since that is the point you want to make to your daughter, you need to reflect it with the eating rules (and so does anyone else with whom they spend significant time).

This process will take a while. Remember that it is far healthier to talk to her about her feelings and food than to just count calories. Kudos to you. So many parents struggle with this issue but don’t deal with it clearly. You are doing what’s best for your family.

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