by Oliver Canfell, Dietitian (obesity), Children’s Health Queensland
Would you consider your child’s weight to be ‘healthy’? Or are you concerned that they might be overweight? Underweight? These are common questions that health professionals regularly hear from parents.
It is important to not place too much emphasis on your child’s weight. It’s not good for self-esteem or confidence if a child becomes overly conscious about their weight, and/or the fact that they perhaps weigh more (or less) than their friends.
Instead, focus on building the foundations for a healthy lifestyle early, so your child is on the right track to become a healthy adult. It’s important for parents to role model healthy habits, as children learn lifelong eating and physical activity habits at a young age and are likely to form habits that they see in their parents.
So what is a healthy weight?
No two children are the same, but there are some basic guidelines for assessing children’s weight and whether it sits in a ‘healthy range’ as they grow.
Health professionals measure children’s growth by comparing their height, weight and Body Mass Index (or BMI – an approximate measure of body fat) with standardised growth charts. Growth charts are also included in a child’s Personal Health Record or ‘Red book’.
BMI is one method used to determine if a child weight is classified as underweight, healthy weight or overweight for their age and gender. Importantly, BMI-for-age calculations for children recognise that their bodies are growing and that as children grow their body fat and BMI changes. For example, BMI usually decreases during the pre-school years and then increases into adulthood.
Please remember, these charts are intended as guides only and do not take into account individual circumstances. Always see your doctor, child health nurse or a dietitian if you would like further guidance on your child’s growth and weight.
Should I monitor my child’s weight?
Yes… but not too much! Keeping an eye on your child’s weight is important because a healthy weight is vital for young bodies as they grow and develop. It can also help identify issues early so you can get help if needed.
A healthy weight during childhood lowers the risk of being overweight or obese as an adult, as well as developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also means your child:
- is getting the right nutrition for growth and development
- is not putting extra stress on developing bones and joints
- is less likely to have low self-esteem
- is less likely to be bullied, or struggle to make friends in school
- can be physically active and participate in team sports and other activities with friends and classmates.
The key ingredients for a healthy weight
Helping your child maintain a healthy weight comes down to finding the right balance between the amount of energy your child takes in (through food and drink) and the energy they use (for growing and physical activity). Here are five key ‘ingredients’ for helping you achieve this:
There is nothing better to keep children hydrated than water and it’s the cheapest choice! Always pack a water bottle for them when leaving the house. Try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime for a hint of flavour if they want to try something different.
Fruit juice is often mistakenly thought to be a healthy drink. While it is high in Vitamin C, it is also high in sugar and energy, just like soft drinks and energy drinks. A healthy dose of Vitamin C can come from a piece of fruit instead, such as an orange, kiwifruit or strawberries.
2. Eat together – with screens off
Eating together as a family without the distraction of screens is key to establishing healthy eating behaviours. Eating as a family presents an opportunity for parents to be a role model, as well as a time for everyone in the family to connect and talk.
Children and young people aged 5–17 should have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. This should include a variety of activities, such as running, playing tennis, bike riding, swimming, dancing, skateboarding, football and basketball.
It’s important to recognise that for 21st century children, there are two main types of screen time: educational (e.g. doing homework online) and recreational (e.g. watching TV, playing games). Educational screen time can be an essential part of your child’s learning but too much recreational screen time can mean your child isn’t getting enough physical activity. Try setting a limit on the amount of recreational screen time your child can have each day or week, and having screen/technology-free times (or a day, if you can!) for everyone in the family to follow. It is recommended that recreational screen time be limited to 2 hours each day.
We should aim to eat a variety of foods from the 5 food groups every day because they provide us with the nutrients needed to grow a healthy body. These food groups are:
- High fibre grains and cereals
- Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, bean and legumes
Take-away, chips, chocolate, lollies, cakes, muffins, cookies, ice cream, processed meats, cream or butter, soft drinks and pastries should be treated as ‘sometimes’ foods – enjoyed on occasion and in small amounts, but not as part of your child’s regular diet. These foods are usually high in energy, unhealthy fats, sugar and salt, and low in the essential nutrients needed for growing bodies.
When to seek help?
Speak with your GP, child health nurse or an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) if you are concerned about any of the following:
- Your child’s eating habits (eating too much, eating too little, fussy eater).
- Your child’s weight (overweight or obese, underweight).
- Your child’s general health and wellbeing (not getting enough physical activity, trouble sleeping, low self-esteem or difficulty making friends, difficulty doing normal physical things, such as walking, running, playing).
Your GP, child health nurse or dietitian can refer your child to other specialist services if further support is needed.