We can’t ignore the fact that more than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. We need to approach this topic with our curious children but the question is “how?” Parents Magazine recently stated that parents should “never discuss weight” with their kids. This is a nice concept, however, many parents say that their kids are the ones who bring it up!

Most kids begin to notice their weight at around eight years old, especially when it is obvious that they are the bigger ones in the class or home. We can’t keep dismissing children when they ask, “Why do I have this big belly?” Of course it makes a child upset when classmates make fun of them, but most parents skip around the issue, out of fear of saying the wrong things.

When kids approach you with these concerns, I encourage you to take advantage of this wonderful and very powerful learning opportunity. It is imperative that you compassionately listen to their concerns. Let them know that you are willing and excited to get them on a healthier path by making changes as a family.

Living a healthy lifestyle is a quintessential life skill like reading and writing. It is a learned skill that needs to be taught. The best way to transmit this information is by keeping the concept of weight a small part of the discussion and turning the conversation towards words of healthfulness, fitness, growth, confidence, strength, immunity, energy, balance, focus, and feeling your best.

Unlike learning how to tie a shoe, which is a topic that needs to be addressed only a few times, healthy living should be a part of an ongoing discussion in the household. And the best way to approach this is as an entire family. It isn’t just about leading by example, it’s about leading as a whole.

I have to emphasize that it is important to create a whole family approach to health. One of the biggest obstacles I encounter when working with overweight children is that there is a thinner child in the home that the parents leave out of the conversation. The worst thing a parent could do, in my opinion, is single out the heavier child in the home for the discussion. These new healthy habits are not just to help your one overweight child lose weight. These habits will prioritize the importance of taking care of your body.

If the whole family isn’t encouraged to make healthy choices together, the most overweight child will associate the changed behavior with punishment and resentment will follow. Then, it will be harder to feel the benefits of eating well.

Yes, there are long-term consequences of being overweight as a kid, but weight doesn’t need to be the whole focus. The main goal is to build a healthy relationship with food and exercise. One example is to read food labels with your kids. You can explain to kids that protein and fiber contribute to the feeling of fullness and that too much sugar isn’t healthy. This way when your kids ask for a snack because they are hungry, you can compare a pack of almonds with 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber and 1 gram of sugar to Twizzlers which have zero grams of protein and fiber and 16 grams of sugar.

We must empower kids to make educated decisions when choosing snacks. Another healthy living habit is to take your kids food shopping and teach them to fill the shopping cart with a variety of fruits and vegetables. This will help them make the connection that fruits and vegetables are the mainstay of a healthy eating plan. With your older kids, you can even teach them that every color in fruits and vegetables represents different antioxidants that help keep the family from getting sick. To follow that lesson, you can challenge your son or daughter to pick one fruit or vegetable from every color of the rainbow every time you go to the market.

It is also important to repeat the mantra, “no meal is complete without a fruit or a vegetable,” so it becomes a staple in your child’s upbringing. In just a few weeks of setting these healthy behaviors, kids tell me they feel more confident and excited about eating healthier and their parents usually state that their kid appears fitter, more energized, and even better mannered.

Most overweight children do not even need to lose weight, they just have to grow into their current weight. As long as these children are developing healthier lifestyle habits and adopting a healthier relationship with food, and maintaining their weight as they grow, we never need to weigh them. Eventually these children will slim down to a good weight as they consistently and happily continue gravitating towards healthier foods.

Still, if weight, food and nutrition are being approached with conflict, and if it is a constant struggle to get your kids to eat well, I strongly recommend hiring a Registered Dietitian to come to your home for a positive and refreshing meeting. It is important that you remain the loving parent and not the nutrition police so your kids foster a welcoming association with these lifestyle choices.