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Should You Put Your Kid on a Diet?

Nathan Morgan

What would you do if the doctor said your child was obese? When Dara-Lynn Weiss heard that clinically weighty word, she put her 7-year-old on a yearlong, calorie-restrictive diet, then recounted the struggles—both her daughter's and her own—in the pages of Vogue. And she caught hell for it. Some considered her methods drastic. According to her own account, she ignored her daughter's hunger and pleas to be like any other kid at a pizza party. Backlash was venomous, with most critics dismissing the mother as a selfish socialite who projected her own warped body image onto her daughter. But the article also sparked a storm of controversy around a real concern you yourself may have: Should my child be on a diet? With the childhood-obesity rate a bona fide epidemic, it's a question many of us are asking. Twenty-seven percent of America's 2- to 5-year-olds are overweight (a body mass index, or BMI, in the 85th to 94th percentile on the growth chart) or obese (95th percentile or higher); for 6- to 11-year-olds, it's 33 percent. Even 10 percent of our infants are too heavy for their length. But research shows that putting a child on a diet can cause physical and emotional problems that last into adulthood. The less obvious answer is more effective and simple—but, in a way, harder.

The Anti-Diet

When Kerri Day of Deerfield, IL, learned that her 5-year-old's BMI was in the 94th percentile, she and her husband were shocked. “We thought we ate healthy, but obviously we weren't doing enough,” she says. “It's tough having a girl in our thin-is-best culture. Talking to Emma about diets didn't feel right.”

Indeed, doctors warn against dieting in the old-school, low-cal, low-fat sense of the word. Depriving children, even heavy ones, of nutrients and calories hinders their development, doesn't work long-term, and puts kids at higher risk for eating disorders. Then there's the singled-out factor: Kids who get small portions or different foods feel excluded.

The number one way you can help your obese child slim down is to drop a few pounds yourself. In the past, doctors focused only on treating the overweight child. Today, the entire family is the patient.

“I don't believe in ‘diets,’” says Lara Field, a pediatric dietitian at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital and founder of FEED (Forming Early Eating Decisions) at “The most successful way for children to reduce [their weight] is to change the entire family's way of eating and thinking about food.” Every pediatric weight-loss expert we talked to agreed. Everybody should be on board with new habits for them to stick. In fact, a new University of California San Diego study found that the number one way to help an obese child slim down is to drop a few pounds yourself. In the past, doctors focused only on the child. Today, the entire family is the patient.

The good news is that unless your child is morbidly obese, your goal need only be weight maintenance, not necessarily weight loss. Starting at age 2, kids sprout an average of two to three inches each year until puberty. One inch of height is equivalent to five pounds. By helping your child keep a steady weight for a year, he'll “lose” 10 to 15 pounds.

So what's the “bad” news? You have to follow through on hard things that work. You got the memo on exercising together, limiting screen time, and sitting down to dinner more often than not. It's time to kick into gear—your kid's life may depend on it.