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Dear Dietitian – Should young children be placed on a diet to combat obesity?

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PICT Leanne McCrate Dear Dietitian
Leanne McCrate, RD, LD, CNSC 

Dear Dietitian,

Please settle an argument between my wife and me. Our eleven-year-old son is about twenty pounds overweight. My wife, who has been thin all her life, wants to put him on a diet to get him on the right track. I am against the idea of a diet. What do you think?

Concerned Dad

Dear Dad,

While your son may be overweight, it is wise to approach this problem with a lasting solution instead of a weight loss diet. For the main reason, a diet is likely to begin a yo-yo cycle. If calories are too restricted, the natural consequence is to overeat later. This may set up a lifetime struggle with weight problems and possible self-esteem issues.

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© iStock - TanyaLovus

Eating healthy does not mean eating all things green; it is eating a variety of foods that you love. Just as with adults, children should eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Follow the 90/10 rule for the whole family. Eat healthy 90% of the time, and allow regular foods like pizza and burgers the remaining 10%.

If we all ate according to appetite, almost no one would be overweight. Teach your son how to pay attention to his body’s signals -- eat when hungry and stop when full. Start with three square meals each day with planned healthy snacks. This will set the body into a routine to be hungry at mealtimes. Have your son fill his plate with the foods he likes, including vegetables, but before he goes back for seconds, ask him if he is really hungry.

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© iStock - sergeyshibut

Another important part of healthy nutrition is to have healthy snacks on hand and visible. Examples include a fresh fruit bowl, low-fat, low-sugar yogurt, veggies and hummus, or a sandwich made with lean meat or peanut butter.

When embarking on a healthy lifestyle, exercise has to be a part of the plan, and it’s a great way to build family community. Go for a walk with the family, or play a sport together. If your son isn’t already part of a team sport, encourage him to try out for one. It’s a great way to build self-esteem while making new friends and learning to be a team player.

Another aspect of a healthy family is dining together, not just for nutritious reasons but also to get to know one another. You find out who your kids’ friends are, what school subjects they like or dislike, and the struggles they are having. Other benefits of eating together include better academic performance, fewer behavioral problems, and less risky behaviors (drugs, sex, alcohol) (1).

Finally, model the behavior you want to see in your child.  Be positive and reward healthy behavior. Be patient and remember, change happens over time, not overnight!


  1. Miller, Daniel, Waldfogel, Jane, Han, Wen-Jui. Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioral Outcomes. Child Dev. 2012 Nov; 83(6):2104-2120.

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian

Leanne McCrate, RD, LD, CNSC, is an award-winning dietitian based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products or diet plans.