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Should I put my overweight child on a diet?

A mom and son sitting together and laughing

Diets often backfire. Instead, focusing on a healthy lifestyle may be a better way to help your child slim down.

Your child is clearly overweight—and you're concerned. That's understandable. Overweight children too often grow into overweight adults. And even in childhood they may develop health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes.

That's why you may wonder: Should I put my child on a diet? The answer, unless your doctor has told you otherwise, is no.

The reason is that diets often backfire. Studies suggest that kids who diet end up weighing more than those who don't. They also have lower-self-esteem and have a greater risk of developing eating disorders.

The better approach for kids is to downplay dieting and emphasize healthy habits instead.

Feed the family well

A key way to do that is by making positive lifestyle changes a family affair. Rather than singling out your child, get everybody in your family involved in eating well and moving more. It's a win-win. Your child won't feel self-conscious, and everybody will benefit.

Here are six specific ways to help your child—and your entire family—eat better.

1. Go for balance. No foods have to be off-limits, even calorie-packed ones—they're fine as occasional treats. But build snacks and meals around healthy options, such as:

  • Fruits and veggies.
  • Whole grains.
  • Lean meats, poultry and seafood.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
  • Water or fat-free or low-fat milk to drink instead of sugary sodas.

2. Be strategic. Put healthy foods and drinks where they're easy to see. Keep high-calorie ones out of sight—or don't buy them at all.

3. Serve smart. At meals, dish up modest amounts of food and drink. Let your child ask for more if that's not enough.

4. Scale back on fast food. Head to the drive-thru less often. When you do order fast food, encourage light choices, such as a salad with grilled chicken (not a double burger) or apple slices (not fries).

5. Put the brakes on distracted eating. Say no to eating in front of the TV, computer or other electronic device.

6. Don't let your child skip breakfast. The biggest predictor of overeating is undereating. And kids who miss their morning meal are likely to overcompensate later on.

Exercise: The other half of the equation

Burning calories by being active is also a key way to help your child get to—and stay at—a healthy weight. So:

Help your child find an activity that engages them. That might be a team sport, a dance class or something less structured, such as regular trips to a playground. What matters is your child's interest.

Plan active family outings. Ride bikes together, take walks, play tennis, visit the zoo—your choice.

Limit TV and other screen time. Time spent sitting in front of a screen is often combined with munching. Your child could be moving instead.

Buy active presents. At birthdays and other times, give gifts that encourage your child to move more, such as a jump rope, a bike or a basketball.

Extra help

If steps like these don't help—or you have any concerns about your child's weight—be sure to ask your child's doctor for advice. A sensible weight-loss plan designed to lose pounds gradually may be appropriate.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; National Institutes of Health

reviewed 1/10/2020

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