Preventing child obesity

Bowl of healthy food, with a hand holding a fork.

by John Malouff, Ph.D., J.D. and Nicola Schutte, Ph.D.


With child obesity rates rising (Torgan, 2002) and the negative health and social effects of obesity affecting more children every day, parents wisely seek ideas about what to do to help their children remain at normal weight. This article describes a simple approach taken by two psychologist parents applying social cognitive learning theory (Bandura, 1986; Martin & Pear, 2003) and findings regarding human behaviour and obesity. So far the approach has worked for our daughter, age 10, and son, age 5. It might also work for your children — to prevent obesity and possibly even to reduce it.


There are two safe ways to control weight: Controlling calorie intake and controlling calorie burning. Unlike calorie restriction, calorie burning can be great fun. We engage in physical activities with our children. We hike, dance, and play sports together. Regular activities pay off the best, but every little bit helps. When we go on vacation, we go places where we can hike. Every week we play badminton. Sometimes we play tennis or other sports. We give the children enough instruction that they have a chance to get good enough at a sport to enjoy it. We encourage our children to play sports by themselves, with others, and on teams. We sign them up for any team sport that they think they might like. Our daughter plays on a netball team and goes to gymnastics once a week. Our son plays on a basketball team. We send our children to a school that offers physical education or sports activities almost every school day. When feasible, we encourage the children to walk to school. At one private school our daughter attended, she was the only walker out of 600 children We limit TV viewing to an hour a day during the school week and 1 1/2 hours per day on other days. We don't want TV to compete with physical activity. There is some research evidence that restricting TV time works (Robinson & Killen, 2001).

We buy lots of appealing nutritious foods such as fruits, sweet potatoes, whole-grain cereal, and low-fat yogurt. We do this because they like to eat sweet foods, and we want to ensure that they get fiber and nutrition from what they eat. We also occasionally eat high-calorie foods such as pizza, cake, and cherry cobbler (We love cherry cobbler). But we don't eat these foods every day. We don't buy fried foods or margarine. These might compete with more healthful foods. We don't buy any milk with fat in it. After normal children reach age 5, they have no need for that fat; from age 2 to 5, low fat milk is good for them; before age 2, they are better off with mother's milk. There is evidence that breastfed children are less likely to become obese when they grow older. See Arenz, Ruckerl, Koletzko, and von Kries (2004). Breastfed children are likely to be more intelligent (Mortensen, Michaelsen, Sanders, & Reinisch, 2003) and healthy too, but that is another story. We provide our children with a sack lunch for school. Schools tend to serve unhealthful food, in part because fat is cheap and filling. We rarely eat out. Restaurants tend to care mostly about customers enjoying the meal and filling full. High levels of fat accomplish both. When we do eat out, we try to go someplace that offers low-calorie food, such as a subway sandwich place. We rarely buy juices and never buy soft drinks. These tend to provide lots of calories with little nutrition. See Beverages play important role in child nutrition (1996).
We try to get several hours of vigorous physical activity a week by walking or biking to work, exercising, hiking, and playing sports. We watch very little or no TV in a typical week. We also try to eat nutritious, low-calorie food. But we wouldn't pass on a free piece of some delicious pastry. No one is perfect.
We encourage our children to become fit or strong — to add muscle. We do this for two reasons. First, fitness has value apart from preventing obesity. Second, we want to avoid laying the groundwork for an eating disorder. We never go on a "diet" or suggest one to the children. We never encourage them to eat less — except when they seem likely to eat the last bit of something we want to try.
We do this to catch any sort of health problem, not specifically obesity. To check whether your child's weight is normal, see Children and youth BMI calculator (undated). Convert inches to centimeters by multiplying the inches by 2.54. Convert pounds to kilograms by multiplying the pounds by 0.4536.
See, for instance, the web-site references in the list below.


References for Further Reading
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social-cognitive theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Arenz, S., Ruckerl, R., Koletzko, B., & von Kries, R. (2004). Breast-feeding and childhood obesity — a systematic review. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 28, 1247-1256.

Children and youth BMI calculator (undated).

Department of Health & Human Services National Institutes of Health (2006). Weight control.

Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2003). Behavior modification: what it is and how to do it. (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mortensen, E. L., Michaelsen, K. F., Sanders, S. A., & Reinisch, J. M. (2002). The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287, 2365-2371.

Robinson, T. N., & Killen, J. D. (2001). Obesity prevention for children and adolescents. In J. K. Thompson and L. Smolak (Eds.), Body image, eating disorders, and obesity in youth: assessment, prevention, and treatment. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.

Torgan, C. (2002). Childhood obesity on the rise.

Web Sites by the Same Author:
Malouff, J. (2004). Nine ways teachers can help young students overcome shyness

Malouff, J. (2010). Coping with the loss of a loved one

Malouff, J. (2010). Preventing child obesity (you are here now)

Malouff, J. (2010). Fifty problem solving strategies explained

Malouff, J. (2010). Helping children overcome shyness

Malouff, J. et al. (2006). Simple strategies academics can use to help students improve their writing skills

Malouff, J., & Schutte, N. (2004). Using psychological strategies to help your child read more

About the Authors
John Malouff, who studies coping with stressors, and Nicola Schutte, who studies emotional intelligence and personality, are senior lecturers at the University of New England School of Psychology.

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