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Basic Dad: When Should I Worry About My Kid Being Fat?

Advice from a child nutritionist, a lunch lady, a former fat kid and more

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

When should I worry about my kid becoming fat?

I know, I know, I’m not even supposed to say stuff like that. Of course my child is beautiful and perfect however they are. But, y’know, on the other hand, it’s kinda my job to look out for them in every way I can. I try to be health-conscious — minimizing sugar intake and finding time to do some physical activity — but they end up eating chicken nuggets at least four times a week and they definitely watch too much TV.

I don’t want to worry too much, like to the point where I end up driving them crazy, or not letting them play the occasional video game. But at what point do I cross the line from wanting my kid to be fit and healthy to body-shaming them and giving them a lifelong complex? They’re only a toddler right now, but the day will come when the issue will need addressing, and it’s not like I can trust anyone else to make them eat their vegetables.

The Expert Advice

Todd Michelitch, Former Kids’ Soccer Coach: If your child wants to be involved in some physical activity, I’d start to worry about their weight by the time they’re 10 or 11. While you should obviously be conscientious about their nutrition beforehand, that’s the age where being overweight may prevent them from being able to compete. I coached a competitive team that played other schools and I remember one kid who was actually really gifted in the gameplay, but because of his weight, he was three steps slower than the other kids.

Honestly, I think most coaches would’ve cut him from the team, because you want to have a fully formed team as soon as possible. I decided, however, to start running with him instead. He went from this pudgy kid to losing a lot of weight, but that was only because I worked with him and was more patient as a coach.

Stella, Mother of Three: When my middle son was reaching about 9 years old, I noticed that he was starting to carry his weight differently than his brothers, who are both very slim. He wasn’t fat or anything, but compared to his older brother especially, he was definitely built bigger. The hardest thing was that he started to notice it and become self-conscious about it. While his brothers could eat whatever they wanted and not gain a pound, I suddenly had to be much more aware of the portion sizes for my middle son. I didn’t want to single him out, though, so I began limiting the portions for all of them, which has led to healthier choices for the whole family.

Veronica Acevedo, Licensed Clinical Social Worker: While exercise and good nutrition are paramount, too much focus on these areas could potentially lead to some issues. Parents often end up projecting their own insecurities onto their children. So, for example, a heavier parent or an image-focused parent may scrutinize their slightly overweight child by making critical comments, or placing too much emphasis on body image.

Consciously or not, a parent who is too focused on perfection will likely instill their child with those very same insecurities. Even little remarks about weight can feel like body-shaming to a child, which can lead to more serious issues—sometimes even eating disorders. While certainly a parent shouldn’t allow their child to become unhealthy physically, they also should be aware of how to approach the subject in a mentally healthy way. For example, try making it into a competition , like who can come up with the most creative healthy snack, or perhaps making it a lighthearted fitness challenge. This will make health a family affair instead of putting the onus on the child.

Sean Salazar, Nutritionist: I teach people how to feed their kids in a very simple way, focusing on the larger food groups and breaking down how many of each a child should have. These groups are grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy, fats and water: We want to be sure that they’re getting all of these things within a day. If they can’t check all of them off, they’re not eating right. An example would be, say, two to four grains (things like breads, pastas and rice); three to four proteins (meat and chicken); three fruits; four vegetables; two to three dairy items (milk, yogurt and cheese); two to three fats (almonds, nut butters, avocado, things cooked with olive oil). Then, for water, they should drink half their (pound) weight in ounces every day.

There are certain foods that are typical “go-to” foods for busy parents — chicken nuggets, pizza or mac and cheese. Now, chicken nuggets are fried foods that come to us cooked; just because we bake them, it doesn’t make them a baked food item — we’re just heating up a fried food. This means they probably have added saturated fats and maybe even the unhealthier trans fats. Pizza and mac and cheese aren’t any better.

The real problem is that by giving our children these foods in excess, we’re raising kids who will only like these types of foods. This may cause them to be picky eaters or not like healthy foods at all, causing them to become unhealthy or overweight as they get older. If you’re trying to “split the difference” by pairing these unhealthy food with fruits and veggies, that doesn’t negate the fact that these foods are unhealthy and shouldn’t be eaten often. You don’t need to cut these out completely, but they need to be treated like a reward for eating well the rest of the week.

If your child is at a stage where weight loss is appropriate, it needs to be as painless as possible. I get children to follow guidelines based on the above food breakdown by putting them into a deficit (where you burn more calories than you consume) necessary for the appropriate goal. When they eat in this way, they shouldn’t feel deprived of food, because when we eat healthy, we’re able to eat much more. Or better put, eating a chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli will feel like a lot more food that one slice of pizza.

Sarah Lentz, School Lunch Lady and Blogger: As a lunch lady, I’m often more concerned that our portions for the entrees aren’t big enough for the students, who are usually ravenous by the time they arrive for lunch. From what I’ve seen, the kids who are more likely to have health issues from carrying too much weight tend to buy too much junk food during the concession sales at the end of each lunch, and they may do so in part because of the small lunch portions.

It’s up to the parents to make sure their kids have more options and can bring their own healthy snacks to school. It’s also up to parents to make sure their kids get enough physical activity during the week. If kids have more healthy options (and fewer unhealthy ones) at home — and, if possible, at school — and stay active, they’re far less likely to become or to stay overweight.

Raymond J. Torres, Financial Aid Counselor and Former Fat Kid: I learned I was fat as soon as I entered elementary school. I come from a long line of fat people, so I really didn’t know — or at least, I didn’t know it was bad to be fat before then. Once I was in school, I realized I couldn’t do what other kids were doing: I couldn’t run like they could, or I couldn’t sit on stuff. And kids would make jokes — kids are vicious. I remember one of the worst experiences of my life was when I went on a senior trip to Hershey Park and I couldn’t go on any of the rides. I remember getting pulled off one ride because the bar wouldn’t go down and all these kids were laughing. That stuff sticks with you.

When I was 32, my body was failing. I was almost 500 pounds. I was a diabetic. My blood sugar was up in the 600s, and I had a doctor tell me that I have less than six months to live. I was scared and having dreams of death. So I decided to do something: I had gastric sleeve surgery and started to walk to work every day. I remember I could see myself in the windows of Madison Avenue, and over time, I could see myself getting smaller. Now my health issues are gone, and I’ve probably added 60 years back onto my life.

Now, I don’t blame my family; no one ever force-fed me. But the way I think families, especially fathers, need to deal with an overweight kid is to lead by example. You can’t force your kid to do something, but you can say, “Hey, let’s find something that you like to do and make it fun and healthy and we’ll do it together.” You need to allow the young person to have control of the situation and pick something they really love. Then you yourself need to immerse yourself in that.

That’s what I needed when I was a fat kid.

Unfortunately, I never got it.

So I had to figure it out for myself instead.