Weight Management Guide for Overweight Children

Boy And Girl With Hamburgers
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An increasing number of kids are overweight, and if no intervention is made, 80% of them will stay overweight as adults. This can put them at risk for many medical problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea. Obesity can also adversely affect their self-esteem.

While most children should not be put on a severely restricted diet, weight management by a combined approach of a sensible diet and regular exercise will help to control their weight gain.

Daily Caloric Needs by Age

Children normally need a certain number of calories each day (energy allowance) that their bodies use as energy for normal daily activities (walking, breathing, etc.).

As with adults, the daily caloric needs of a child depend on their sex, age, and activity level. A 13 year old will need to eat a lot more than a 6 year old, and children who are more active will generally need to eat more altogether.

Moderately active boys should consume around 1,600 calories per day from ages 6 to 8. By 9 to 10 years old, they need closer to 1,800 calories and by 11 to 13 they need about 2,200. By ages 14 to 17, this bumps up to 2,400 to 2,800 calories each day.

Girls who are moderately active need about 1,600 calories per day from ages 7 to 9, 1,800 calories per day from ages 10 to 11, and 2,000 calories per day from ages 12 to 17.

These are only estimates. Some children will need more calories or fewer calories in a day depending on their metabolism and daily activities.

Energy and Fat Storage

When someone consumes more food and calories than is required by their energy allowance, the excess calories are converted to fat for storage.

Conversely, when someone consumes fewer calories than is required by their energy allowance, their body fat is converted to energy for the needed calories.

You can think of this relationship in terms of an equation:

Energy Stored (Fat) = Energy In - Energy Used

A child can lose weight by either eating fewer calories each day or getting more activity so that their body uses up more calories to provide the needed energy.

Either way, body fat is burned and converted to energy, which results in weight loss.

Often, it's a combination of dieting (eating less) and exercising (moving more) that allows someone to achieve sustainable, healthy weight loss.

Your First Goal

The first goal of weight management in kids should be to stop weight gain and maintain normal growth in height. This strategy allows them to "grow into" their weight.

Start by helping your child eat healthier (about 500 fewer calories each day) and add regular exercise and physical activity to their routine.

Once your child has stopped gaining weight and is on a regular program of eating healthy and exercising, you can set further goals of slow weight loss (about a 10% reduction at a time) if necessary.

Finding Motivation

It will be easier for your child to lose weight if they are motivated to do so. You can help your child lose weight by making healthy choices for their meals at home and encouraging regular exercise and physical activity.

One of the best ways to keep them motivated is by getting your whole family actively involved in the process of eating healthier and exercising regularly.

Behaviors to Modify

It is also important to modify the behaviors that led your child to become overweight. These behaviors may prevent weight loss or encourage weight to be regained.

Behaviors you'll want to modify include:

  • Limiting Television: you should limit television viewing to about one or two hours each day (this includes playing video games or using the computer). Watching television doesn't use up many calories and it encourages eating unhealthy foods and unhealthy habits.
  • Healthy Eating Habits: your child should eat three well-balanced meals of average size each day, plus two nutritious snacks. Discourage skipping meals (especially breakfast).
  • Snacks: you should limit snacks to two each day and they can include low-calorie foods, such as raw fruits or vegetables. Avoid using high calorie or high-fat foods for snacks, especially chips, cookies, etc.
  • Drinking: you should encourage your child to drink four to six glasses of water each day, especially before meals. Water has no calories and it will help you to feel full. Other drinks can include diet sodas and low-fat milk. Avoid letting your child drink regular soft drinks or fruit juices, as they are high in calories (150-170 calories per serving).
  • Diet Journal: help your child to keep a weekly journal of food and beverage intake and also of the amount of time that is spent watching television, playing video games and exercising. You can also record your child's weight each week (but do not weight your child every day).

Calories and Serving Sizes

It is not necessary to count calories, but you and your child should become more educated about the foods you eat and how many calories they contain. You should begin to routinely check the nutrition label of the foods that your family is eating.

You want to try and eat foods low in calories and also low in fat. Be careful of low fat or "diet" foods, as they can still be high in calories even though they are low in fat.

Check the serving size of prepared meals and snacks. A serving of chips may only have 200 calories, but if the serving size is only 10 chips, eating the entire bag would be over 1,000 calories just for a snack.

Some eating habits that will help your child lose weight include:

  • Healthy Meals. Your child needs three well-balanced meals of average size each day. Prepare foods that are baked, broiled, or steamed, rather than fried in fat. A healthy meal can include a small serving of lean meat and a large serving of vegetables.
  • Single Servings. Avoid serving seconds of the main course or dessert. If your child is still hungry, encourage them to have more salad or vegetables.
  • Desserts. Serve fresh fruit as a dessert. Ice cream, cookies, cake, or other high-calorie foods should be treats, not frequent staples.
  • Grocery shopping. Stock up on low-calorie and low-fat meals, snacks, and desserts. Choose low-fat or skim milk and diet drinks. Avoid stocking your pantry with high-calorie desserts or snacks, such as snack chips, regular soft drinks, or regular ice cream.
  • Eat at the table. Avoid letting your child eat meals or snacks outside of the kitchen or dining room. You might want to make it a house rule that no one eats while watching TV.
  • Avoid Fast Food. Limit high-fat, high-calorie trips to the drive-thru. If you'll be traveling or having meals outside your home, pack healthy options.

Encourage Fitness

An essential part of any weight loss or weight management program is regular fitness. Encourage your child to participate in a physical education class in school and extracurricular sports at school or in the community.

Try and find physical activities that your child enjoys doing. Some tips to increase your child's and family's physical activities include:

  • Walk or ride your bike instead of driving for short distances.
  • Take a walk with a friend or walk the family dog each afternoon.
  • Use stairs instead of escalators or elevators, especially if you have to walk out of your way to find the stairs.
  • Park your car at the end of the parking lot and walk to the entrance of the mall or grocery store.
  • Encourage regular exercise for 20-30 minutes 4-5 times each week. This can include walking, jogging, swimming, bike riding, rollerblading, riding a skateboard, etc. It can also include playing a new sport, such as basketball, volleyball, tennis, soccer, etc.
  • Go for routine family walks or bike rides in the neighborhood or local park.

Be a Good Role Model

To help get your child motivated to exercise and eat more healthily, it is very important that you provide them with a healthy lifestyle that they can model their own life after.

This includes having healthy eating habits and participating in a regular exercise program. Also, limit how much time the family watches television.

Protect Your Child's Self Esteem

While it is important to help your child reach a more healthy weight, it is not as important as maintaining their self-esteem.

You can support your child's weight loss efforts through what you do and say.

  • Never tell your child that they are "fat."
  • Avoid strict diets and withholding or depriving your child of food when they are hungry.
  • Don't overly nag your child about their weight or eating habits.

Important Reminders

Most importantly, make sure your child knows that being overweight doesn't change what kind of person they are or how much you love them. Other things to keep in mind as you support your child include:

  • Be patient. Healthy weight loss takes time.
  • Get the whole family involved. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise should be a regular part of your family's life. It is much easier if everyone in the house follows these guidelines rather than your child having to follow them alone.
  • Allow your child to have special foods or desserts on special occasions.
  • Avoid strict diets, fasting, and crash, liquid, or fad diets. These diets rarely work and may discourage your child or even be dangerous. Adult diets, such as the Atkins diet, WW, or the cabbage soup diet, have not been proven safe or effective for children.
  • Call your pediatrician if your child is not achieving weight loss with their current routine or if it is affecting their self-esteem.
  • Consider seeing a nutritionist for help with dieting, weight loss, and planning your family's diet.
6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Güngör NK. Overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. J Clin Res Pediatr Endocrinol. 2014;6(3):129-43. doi:10.4274%2Fjcrpe.1471

  3. Savage JS, Fisher JO, Birch LL. Parental influence on eating behavior: conception to adolescence. J Law Med Ethics. 2007;35(1):22-34. doi:10.1111/j.1748-720X.2007.00111.x

  4. USDA Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level.

  5. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Aim for a Healthy Weight; Key Recommendations.

  6. Kaiser Permanente, Children and Adolescent Weight Management Guideline

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.