You've hidden the Oreos and potato chips in a cupboard the kids can't reach. You just signed your grade-schooler up for gymnastics lessons and your teenager's on the soccer team at school. But they're both packing on pounds, and you're not sure why. Sure, they may be sneaking sodas and sweets when you're not looking--but it might also be time to think about how your own actions may be affecting your kids' weight . Ask yourself whether the following habits are to blame. (Related: 7 Kids' Foods to Never Eat )
Children whose parents do almost no physical activity have a 50 percent greater risk of being unfit compared to children whose parents exercise more often, according to researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. "The most powerful step you can take to get your kids moving is to set a strong example," says Natalie Digate Muth, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise who's a mom and pediatrician. "When kids see a parent's commitment to getting a workout in, the kids understand that it is an important and normal part of everyday life."
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Experts recommended that kids get 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity each day in addition to PE classes at school. But the excuses that you make on your child's behalf could keep him on the couch. "Parents will say that it's too hot outside or the neighborhood isn't safe enough," notes Angela Lemond, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She suggests checking out a YMCA or community center for a safe, inexpensive, and climate-controlled place where the whole family can exercise together.
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Just because you were on the softball team in college doesn't mean your daughter will enjoy the sport too. "Forcing an activity can inadvertently turn a kid off to exercise," warns Muth. There's a greater chance that your child will get moving--and keep moving--if she picks the activity and decides how it will be done. (Search: What are some activities my kids and I can do together?)
We know you have your hands full, but using the television as an electronic babysitter can affect your kid's belly size. The more time preschoolers spend in front of the tube, the wider their waistlines will be once they reach elementary school, according to a study from the University of Montreal. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children over the age of two watch no more than two hours of TV per day.
Set up more play dates with the neighborhood kids you often see biking around the block or playing yard games than the ones who stay inside watching TV. Children who have active friends are more likely to be active themselves, according to a Vanderbilt University study. "A parent should make an effort to identify a child's most active friend and make extra efforts to support that relationship," suggests Muth.
"So much research links eating breakfast to better academic performance, but it's also tied to obesity," says Lemond. "If kids skip an entire meal, they'll make up those calories and then some when they get home from school, grabbing foods that are higher in fat and lower in nutrients." What's more, breakfast foods generally provide fiber, protein, and B vitamins, which kids might not make up later in the day.
"After-school activities and failing to plan dinners in advance is a huge issue for families," says Sarah Krieger, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. When driving kids to soccer and piano lessons follows a long day of work, it's easy to fall victim to take-out or the drive-thru. "If the kids pressure the parents and the parents also enjoy fast-food meals, then that can easily become the norm, which means extra fat, salt, and calories on busy nights," notes Krieger.
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Pediatric dieticians say that parents should be responsible for providing structured meals, while the only decision that children have is whether or not to eat what's on the table, says Lemond. "But a lot of times, parents allow kids to decide what the family will eat," she adds. Since it is a parent's innate reaction to nurture their children, they will likely agree to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, like macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, if it means that their child will eat a meal, says Lemond.
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Forcing your kid to become a member of the Clean Plate Club teaches him to ignore feelings of fullness and also messes with his ability to develop self-control. In a Cornell University study, children who were told to eat all the food served to them at dinner were more likely to overindulge in sugary snacks the next morning. Researchers suggest that when kids are unable to control what they eat at home, they may act out and go overboard when they're at school or daycare. The researchers recommend that parents serve moderately sized portions of a variety of foods and encourage children to try, but not necessarily finish, all of the foods on their plates.
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Children and teens who eat with their families at least three times a week are more likely to be a healthy weight and eat nutritious foods, and less likely to develop disordered eating habits, like bingeing or skipping meals, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics study. If your family can't come together at dinnertime because one parent works late or a child has an evening extracurricular activity, eat breakfast together instead, advises Lemond.
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The number one way mom and dad can help their obese or overweight children lose weight is to drop pounds themselves, according to a study published in Obesity. Researchers at the University of California--San Diego School of Medicine and the University of Minnesota determined that parental weight loss was more effective than stocking the kitchen with diet-friendly foods or encouraging a child to eat less and exercise more.
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At the other end of the spectrum, parents who obsess over counting calories and trying out the latest fad diets don't do their kids any favors. "Children will be raised to be insecure around food," says Lemond. "When kids are concerned about calories, they're not seeing food for what it provides--the superpowers that help them with their soccer game or get a better grade on a test."
Children eat an average of three snacks a day, according to a study published in Health Affairs, and they're not necessarily nibbling on fruits and veggies. Cookies, cake, candy, chips, and sugary beverages add up to 586 calories each day from snacks, the research shows. Another study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine found that frequent snacking is related to higher rates of obesity.
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You can't bring chips and cookies into the house expect that your child won't be tempted by the treats just because you say that they're off limits. "The reality is that kids are going to do what you do, not what you say," Lemond explains. "Instead, stock your house with healthy foods that are easily accessible, like washed and ready-to-eat fruit, string cheese, hummus, and vegetables."
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You're proud that your middle schooler just earned an A on a really hard history test, but giving a kid a sweet treat as a reward may help pack on extra pounds. In a study of more than 2,000 British adults, those whose parents had regularly rewarded them with food as kids were four times as likely to have been overweight since childhood than those whose parents did not use snacks as a motivator.
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Even juices labeled "100% fruit juice" are full of unneeded calories, Lemond warns. Instead, encourage your kids to drink more water. "Make it extra cold and try adding a squeeze of lemon juice or slice of orange to make it taste good." The bonus: Since thirst is often misread as hunger, a properly hydrated kid may also be less tempted to snack all day.
Kids who skimp on slumber tend to overeat, says Lemond. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that 3 to 5-year-olds get 11 to 13 hours of sleep each night and 5 to 12-year-olds 10 to 11 hours nightly. Kids between the ages of 5 and 10 who snooze for less than 10 hours a night are 3.5 times more likely to be overweight than those who sleep for 12 hours or more, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity.