Weight Loss Help for Kids Who Aren't Losing Weight

Setbacks and what to do about them

Childhood obesity continues to be a problem for many kids. a
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Every parent wants their child to be healthy. So, if your child is overweight, it can be frustrating if he or she, with your help, is trying to lose weight and the scale isn't budging. It can also be concerning, of course, given what is known about the health risks of obesity in children.

Knowing more about common setbacks and ways to help your child be successful can go a long way. It's also important that you work with your child's pediatrician to determine a proper weight loss goal. Because children grow at different rates, it is not always easy to figure out whether a child is overweight or at a healthy weight on your own.

Reasons Kids Gain (and Retain) Weight

Every weight loss plan should start with understanding the reasons for weight gain. There are two simple explanations for the rise in childhood obesity—too many calories and too little physical activity. More specifically, many children (for whom a health concern is not the underlying reason) gain weight because of:

  • Larger portion sizes
  • Extra calories from soda and fruit drinks
  • Frequently eating fast food
  • Playing video games for significant amounts of time
  • Eating a lot processed foods at home
  • Spending a lot time on the computer
  • Watching too much TV
  • Less time in active free play

Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of youth affected by obesity has tripled since the 1970s. 

Common Weight Loss Setbacks and Mistakes

Thinking about some of the reasons why kids become overweight, it would seem like it should be easy to lose weight—just eat less and exercise more. Of course, losing weight isn't always easy, and kids often face struggles and setbacks, just as adults do. Many times, they are due to the following.

Being Unrealistic

Not setting realistic weight loss goals is a common issue. For example, a good first goal is to simply stop gaining weight or even to stop gaining weight so quickly, rather than to lose. If your child meets that goal after a few months, you can then modify his diet and activity level and work toward a goal of shedding pounds.

Trying Too Much, Too Soon

One of the biggest weight loss setbacks is giving up because of doing too much at once. For example, a parent may switch a child from whole to skim milk, cut out all soda and fruit juice, and not allow any junk food or unhealthy snacks in the house. At the same time, they may have signed their child up for a sport or started taking the child to a personal trainer. This may be the same child who was spending a lot time watching television and playing video games previously. This kind of extreme scenario is almost always going to fail.

It is often recommended that parents go slowly, starting with small changes and working up from there.

Not Upping Physical Activity

Not incorporating increased exercise (at least an hour of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity each day and more vigorous intensity physical activities at least three days a week) into a child's plan to get to a healthier weight can hamper progress. A child may have to start with just 15 to 20 minutes a day and slowly work up to an hour a day.

Sticking With Old Pastimes

Kids who have passed their time watching TV, playing video games, or engaging in other sedentary activities will need to be exposed to and encouraged to engage in new activities for entertainment. Cutting out these old favorites may be a solution, but many parents may find putting time limits on them is best.

Lack of Meal Planning

Parents and kids have to make a conscious decision to cut back on portions and to choose certain foods in order to break out of typical eating habits. Many kids, for example, may default to an extra-large after-school snack out of habit or going for seconds at dinner because they always have. Kids should shoot for five or more fruits and vegetables every day, which may require some advance planning.

Skipping Meals or Under-eating

It's important to eat throughout the day to maintain energy and keep one's metabolism up. Because of this, skipping meals, especially breakfast, instead of working to limit over-sized portion sizes or eating three meals a day can backfire. Work to help your child concentrate on making healthy choices, not just trying to limit calories.

Feeling Unmotivated

Perhaps the hardest part of losing weight for kids (and adults) is not getting motivated to make the changes they need to make. Involving your child in the process, educating him or her about the reasons for the effort, and rewarding progress can help. Getting family members involved with diet and exercise habit changes can also go a long way, as children often follow the examples they see.

When a Child Can't Seem to Lose Weight

For the great majority of overweight children, weight loss comes down to an imbalance between the amount of energy they are taking in (calories from food/drinks) and the amount of energy they are using (exercising and daily activities). Even if they think they are doing all the right things, it is possible they just need to do a little more.

You can help your child by:

  • Keeping a log to record how well the child is doing being active, cutting back on watching TV, and eating healthier foods
  • Getting him motivated to exercise by finding a sport he might like to play, which is more fun than just running on a treadmill or walking around the neighborhood
  • Eating better as a household by providing healthy snacks, drinks, and foods and not having junk food around
  • Getting the whole family involved being physically active each day
  • Providing positive feedback for things achieved, such as eating less, cutting back on drinking soda, or eating less fast food

But once a child starts to lose weight and fails, or continues to gain more weight, this will often be the time a parent suspects their child has a hormonal problem.

If your child just can't lose weight despite numerous healthy approaches, it might be time to talk to your family's pediatrician again.

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, or if lifestyle is compounding such an issue, the following may be suggested.

Weight Management Programs

Your child’s doctor can recommend a medical weight loss program that teaches young people how to change their lifestyle to lose weight.

Adolescent weight management programs, usually offered at local hospitals, encourage a lifelong commitment to eating well, exercising, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle through adulthood. Programs include counseling sessions and education for the child and his or her family. The type of program created depends on the child's age and health.

Weight Watchers offers programs for children between ages 10 and 16 with a parent’s signature and a doctor's referral. The program involves following a plan set by the child’s doctor and allowing the child to attend in-person meetings. Children cannot attend online meetings.

Working With a Registered Dietitian

A registered dietitian can address your child’s unique weight loss needs and how the foods he or she eats affects them. A dietitian can also help create an eating plan to help with weight loss and ensure the child gets the nutrition necessary to be active and feel healthy. 

Getting a Health Coach

A helpful resource to you and your child can be an online health coaching program. One such program is Kurbo Health Coaching, which offers a website (kurbo.com) and a health app to help children ages 8 through 18 and their families set weight loss goals and track their food choices, exercises and progress. This company bases its coaching on research done at Stanford University and other leading universities. Coaches offer weekly support to check on progress and to see how weight loss is going.

Coaches are available 24/7 by email and text to answer questions and offer support. These types of coaching programs are available for a cost, usually on a monthly basis. Some employers may even reimburse costs to employees and their families who join Kurbo or similar coaching programs.

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