Weight Loss Help for Kids Who Aren't Losing Weight

If your child is overweight, it can be frustrating if they are trying their best to shed the pounds but the scale isn't budging. It can also be worrisome given the health risks of childhood obesity, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

This article explores the common reasons why children are overweight and the mistakes that parents sometimes make when trying to help their child lose weight. It offers a rational guideline for weight loss in children without risk to their health or well-being.

Pediatrician checking height of girl in exam room
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Reasons Kids Gain (and Retain) Weight

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of children affected by obesity has tripled since the 1970s. There are two simple explanations for the rise in childhood obesity: too many calories and too little physical activity.

Among some of the key contributing factors to this are:

  • Family eating habits
  • High-calorie, high-fat diets
  • Large portion sizes
  • Frequent fast food, convenience food, or snack foods
  • Eating processed foods (like baked goods, microwave meals, and pizzas)
  • Drinking sodas and sweetened drinks
  • A sedentary lifestyle (like watching TV and playing video games)
  • Family or personal stress
  • Boredom

Recap

Certain factors increase the risk of childhood obesity, including a high-calorie diet, oversized portions, family eating habits, eating processed or convenience foods, stress or boredom, and an inactive lifestyle with too much TV or video games.

Common Weight Loss Mistakes

On paper, it should be easy to lose weight—simply eat less and exercise more. But as parents well know, that's easier said than done. For children, the challenges are often greater given that they may have less self-control and more temptation from school friends.

Many weight-loss plans for children fail for the following reasons:

Unrealistic Expectations

Not setting realistic weight loss goals is a common issue. Rather than losing weight, a good first goal may be to simply stop gaining weight. If your child meets that goal after a few months, you can then modify their diet and activity level to begin shedding pounds.

Trying Too Much, Too Soon

Adults often give up on diets because they try too much too soon. Children will do the same if parents force aggressive changes in their eating and exercise habits.

Problems can develop if a parent suddenly decides to switch from whole to skim milk, cut out all sodas and fruit juices, and not allow any junk food in the house. At the same time, they may sign their child up for sports or personal training even though the child spends the better part of their time playing video games.

Extreme changes like these only set a child up for failure. A better approach is to focus on incremental changes with a clear set of long-term goals.

Not Upping Physical Activity

Exercise levels should never plateau. Allowing your child to engage in the same level of activity week after week will get them nowhere.

Start your child with 15 to 20 minutes of exercise per day and gradually increase the intensity and duration every week. In time, your child should have at least one hour of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every day and more vigorous-intensity physical activity at least three times weekly.

Sticking With Old Pastimes

You may not be able to cut out all TV or videos games, but you should set time limits for these activities. Your kids may whine and complain at first but will eventually be forced to engage in other activities.

Work with your child to figure out what physical or outdoor activities appeal to them. By finding something they enjoy, they will most likely stick with it.

Lack of Meal Planning

Parents have to make a conscious decision to cut back on portions and the types of high-fat, high-calorie foods their family may enjoy. This is never easy, particularly if some members of the family are heavy and others are not.

You can help reduce stress by planning meals well in advance. Rather than giving everyone "diet food," mix family favorites with foods that are lower in calories, fats, and sugar.

By planning ahead, you can count calories while ensuring that you meet the nutritional goals of your entire family. It'll also prevent you from "scraping together whatever you have" or calling for a pizza if you don't know what to make.

Skipping Meals

It's important to eat throughout the day to maintain steady metabolism (the burning of calories for energy). If your kids skip meals, their metabolism and energy levels can plummet. When this happens, your child will likely reach for a sugary snack or gorge themselves on whatever they can eat to boost their energy.

It is important to stress from an early age the importance of eating three meals per day. You can also teach your child which snacks are good for them if they need one.

Feeling Unmotivated

Perhaps the hardest part of losing weight is not getting motivated to make the changes that need to be made. Involving your child in the process, educating them about the reasons for the change, and rewarding their progress can help enormously.

Getting family members involved can also go a long way toward motivating a child. It not only gives them examples to follow but makes them feel less isolated.

Recap

Among the reasons why weight-loss programs often fail in children are unrealistic expectations, a lack of meal planning, lack of family involvement, not increasing the child's fitness level, and not setting limits on TV or video games.

When a Child Can't Seem to Lose Weight

For the vast majority of children, weight loss comes down to burning more calories than they consume through food and drinks. As a parent, it helps to track both of these things. You may be surprised to find how many calories are in certain snacks or how few calories you burn with certain activities.

You can help your child in the following ways:

  • Keep a log to track how much activity they do each day. You can use an activity tracker app to estimate how many calories are being burned.
  • Keep a log of every meal, drink, or snack that is eaten during the day. You can use a calorie-counting app to estimate how many calories are being consumed.
  • Get your child involved in physical activities they enjoy rather than running on a treadmill or walking around the neighborhood.
  • Eat better as a household with healthy snacks, drinks, and foods.
  • Get the whole family involved in daily physical activity.
  • Provide positive feedback when goals are achieved and encouragement when they are not.

If your child can't lose weight despite these approaches, speak with your pediatrician. There may be other reasons for their inability to lose weight.

Recap

Weight loss is ultimately about burning more calories than you eat. By keeping track of your child's food intake and daily activities, you can make adjustments to each to ensure the weight-loss goals are met.

How a Professional Can Help

Your pediatrician can evaluate your child for medical conditions that can cause weight gain, including Cushing's syndrome and hypothyroidism. If there are no specific health conditions affecting your child's weight, the following may be recommended:

Weight Management Programs

Your child’s doctor can recommend a weight-loss program that teaches kids how to change certain habits to lose weight. These are often offered by local hospitals and community-based family health centers. Programs vary by the child's age but typically involve counseling and education for both the child and their family.

Weight Watchers offers programs for children between 10 and 16. A parent’s signature and a doctor's referral are required. The program involves in-person meetings and one-on-one support. Unlike the adult program, children cannot attend online meetings.

Working With a Registered Dietitian

A registered dietitian can tailor a program to your child’s unique needs and limitations. A dietitian can also help create an eating plan to aid with weight loss and ensure that the child gets ample nutrition. 

Getting a Health Coach

There are paid online coaching programs that may help children with obesity. One such program is Kurbo Health Coaching which offers one-to-one remote coaching and a weight-loss app designed specifically for kids 8 through 18.

This company bases its coaching on research done at Stanford University and other leading colleges. Coaches offer weekly remote support to check on progress and offer encouragement and advice. Coaches are also available 24/7 by email or text.

Recap

In addition to your child's pediatrician, there are other professionals experienced in childhood obesity and weight loss. These include registered dieticians, kid-specific weight loss programs, and online health coaches.

Summary

If your child is overweight or obese, it is important to take a rational approach to weight loss. One of the first goals is to identify the underlying causes of the weight gain so that you can aim to correct them. These may include your child's diet and eating habits, the lack of physical activity, and personal issues like stress or boredom.

One of the reasons why weight-loss programs fail in kids is that parents often set unrealistic goals. Focus on incremental changes, and get the entire family involved in the effort. It also helps to plan meals in advance, set limits on TV and video games, and gradually increase fitness levels week on week.

If your child has difficulty losing weight, make sure that they are burning more calories than they are consuming. If that still doesn't help, seek professional help from your pediatrician, a registered dietician, a kid-specific weight-loss program, or an online children's health coach.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health 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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