Focus on Pediatrics

To curb obesity, target child’s health not diet

Develop good eating habits paired with exercise

Obesity is on the rise among children in America. However, dieting is not the answer, says Frances M. Berg, MS, LN, a family wellness specialist in Hettinger, ND, and an adjunct professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.

The focus should be on healthy habits, such as exercise and eating good nutritious foods. Children tend to fill up on empty calories by eating foods from the tip of the food guide pyramid rather than eating food from all categories that include proteins, fruits and vegetables, and carbohydrates. When children are served foods from all five food groups, they tend to eat fewer empty calories, says Berg.

Yet, good nutrition is more than the selection of food. It also involves eating patterns. Many American families eat chaotically, skipping meals, eating much less than their bodies want, or binging and eating way more than their bodies want.

Families need to shift to normal eating, which usually is three meals a day with one or two snacks to satisfy hunger. It’s also important for people to be attuned to their body’s needs eating until they are full and satisfied.

Parents need to guide children in their food choices. "Children tend to eat what is there, so it is up to parents to put on the table what they believe are good foods for their kids," says Berg.

Make the food available, but let children decide which foods to eat and how much to eat, advises Berg. If a child refuses to eat a food such as cheese, don’t assume that he or she doesn’t like it. Keep offering the food, because often it takes up to 15 times of presenting the food to the child before he or she begins to eat and enjoy it.

"Parents should provide the different kinds of good food and provide a good example. If the parents are eating the foods, the children will eventually eat the food," says Berg. It’s important that parents not make a fuss over the food, insist that children eat foods they don’t want to eat, or talk about a dislike for a certain food in front of their children, she says.

In addition to providing nutritious food and regular mealtimes, parents need to provide ways for their children to get exercise. A sedentary lifestyle, probably more than any other factor, leads to obesity, says Berg.

When speaking before groups, Berg often asks adults how many rode their bikes or walked to school as a child, and almost every hand goes up. However, when asked if their children walk to school, few raise their hands. "This is the pattern of people’s activity today," says Berg.

Experts recommend that parents allow their children no more than two hours of recreational screen time, says Berg. That includes watching television and playing computer games or surfing the Internet. Using the computer for homework purposes would allow for additional screen time.

Teaching parents to prevent or address obesity by helping children develop healthy habits is the best way to solve the spiraling weight problem. Research shows that diets and food restriction don’t work, says Berg. In fact, in the long run, dieting can lead to increased weight gain, eating disorders, and malnutrition, she says.

[Editor’s note: Francis Berg is the author of 11 books on healthy living. Her most recent book is Underage and Overweight: America’s Childhood Obesity Crisis — What Every Family Needs to Know printed by Hatherleigh Press. The cost of the publication is $24.95. The book brings together weight and eating research, making it easily accessible to those who work with children. It contains many charts, graphs, lists, short items, and an appendix providing resources for professionals. To order: Francis Berg, MS, Editor, Healthy Weight Network, 402 S. 14th St., Hettinger, ND 58639. Telephone: (701) 567-2646. Web site:]


For more information about teaching parents how to help their children develop a healthful lifestyle, contact:

Frances M. Berg, MS, LN, Family Wellness Specialist, 402 S. 14th St., Hettinger, ND 58639. Telephone: (701) 567-2646. E-mail: