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Help Kids Lose Weight

Child standing on a scale

If your child had a bagel for breakfast this morning, it wasn't much more nutritious than eating a bowl of sugar, says Parents advisor David Ludwig, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Boston Children's Hospital. That's because most starchy carbohydrates, like bread, white rice, and potatoes, dissolve into glucose soon after you swallow them. Starting the day with eggs or another source of protein instead will not only help your child feel fuller, but it will help him lose weight.

Dr. Ludwig is seriously worried about how many kids are getting fat -- the percentage of 6- to 11-year-olds who are overweight has doubled in the last 25 years. And the situation is only going to get worse: Children who are overweight are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and could face kidney failure and amputations by age 30. Ironically, our focus on low-fat eating over the last decades -- and the subsequent boom in high-carb meals and snacks -- may be a key factor in the obesity epidemic, says Dr. Ludwig. But an Atkins-style low-carb diet isn't the answer either. In his eye-opening new book, Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World, he offers a road map -- backed up by the latest scientific research -- for helping kids stay slim.

The glycemic load is key. This is the measure of how quickly a food containing carbohydrates turns into glucose. Studies have shown that when a kid eats a high-glycemic meal, his blood-glucose surges and then plummets -- leaving him even hungrier. A low-glycemic meal takes longer to digest so a child's blood sugar stays steady, and he'll feel full longer. In general, low-glycemic carbs have more fiber and are less processed.

 

Choose lots of veggies and fruits (but not all of them). No surprise here: You should pile on the produce. However, corn and potatoes have a high glycemic index, and certain tropical fruits, such as bananas and pineapple, are more likely to contribute to weight gain than apples, grapes, oranges, cantaloupe, kiwi, or berries.

Try to include protein in most meals and snacks. In addition to being filling, protein stimulates the release of a hormone that helps the body release stored fat to use for energy, says Dr. Ludwig.

Fat isn't always the enemy. Healthy fats like unsaturated oils, nut butters, and avocado slow down digestion, and they make fruit, veggies, and whole grains even more filling. Fat is actually vital to health: It's needed to make cell membranes throughout the body -- and the types of fat your child eats affect his immune system, nervous system, and overall health.

Avoid foods that your great-grandparents couldn't have recognized. Fake foods (think chicken nuggets, fruit roll-ups, cheese puffs, and other highly processed products bearing no resemblance to anything found in nature) are rarely healthy choices, says Dr. Ludwig. When you choose grains, look for the least-processed options, such as stone-ground wheat bread, steel-cut oatmeal, and brown rice.

Food can affect behavior, too. When your child's blood sugar drops soon after a high-glycemic meal, she also has a surge in the stress hormone adrenaline. That can make her cranky, irritable, or unable to focus in class.

Kids don't have to feel deprived. No parent wants to put their child on a diet. But if the whole family focuses on low-glycemic eating, one child who has a weight problem won't feel singled out. By helping him focus on the quality of the food he's eating rather than the quantity, he can eat until he feels satisfied and still lose weight. For more information, go to endingthefoodfight.com.

Shift the balance to carbs with a low- or medium-glycemic load, and cut back on ones that are high. Some examples:

  • LOW Broccoli, carrots, avocado, apples, berries, beans, steel-cut oatmeal, hummus, nuts, unsweetened peanut butter, plain yogurt (add honey and fruit), milk, cheese
  • MEDIUM Pineapple, sweet potatoes, banana, dried fruit, applesauce, sweetened peanut butter, pasta, high-fiber cereal, stone-ground bread, brown rice, ice cream
  • HIGH Corn, potatoes, white rice, french fries, chips, huice, jam, sweetened yogurt, most bread, pancakes, waffles, pizza, popcorn, pretzels, taco shells, quick-cooking oatmeal, most cereal, frozen yogurt