To Your Health

I am becoming concerned that my 12-year-old daughter is overweight. Is it too early to give her some pointers on how to lose weight?

Q. I am becoming concerned that my 12-year-old daughter is overweight. She is certainly not obese, but she is not the slim preteen that some of her friends are. One of her grandmothers and an aunt are truly obese, but most of the family has no problem with weight. I don't want to make her paranoid about her weight and make her anorexic. Is it too early to give her some pointers on how to lose weight?

A. It is never too early to educate children about good food choices and fun activities that will hopefully become habits as they mature. Given a nutritious diet and enjoyable activity, most teens will regulate themselves to their own best weight. Also the taste for healthy foods you instill in your children will help your child to eat better her whole life.

The early teen years are a critical time in which fat cells can easily multiply, and once present they naturally tend to store fat. Special attention to weight at this stage pays dividends for decades. The other critical time is the toddler stage, but since that stage is past for your daughter, you should take advantage of the present window of opportunity.

It might help your daughter to be healthy rather than fashionable if you obtained a body fat measurement. These days it is easy to measure body fat, and it might reassure your daughter that 12-16% body fat is fine for a teenager. Athletes and supermodels who maintain 3-6% body fat are not necessarily healthy.

You should ask your daughter about her food intake away from home. School lunch rules may allow chocolate milk to replace plain milk, and the increased sugar and chocolate is not healthful. Also inquire about the number of soft drinks she now consumes. Research indicates that a child is 1.6 times more likely to become obese for every soft drink consumed each day. Two-thirds to 3/4 of adolescents consume one or more soft drinks every day. The typical canned soft drink contains 12 teaspoons of sugar. Can you imagine watching while your daughter spoons 12 teaspoons of sugar out of the sugar bowl into a glass of tea? Convenience foods are insidious sources of many other ingredients that are disgusting when you get to know them. Artificially sweetened soft drinks may actually be worse than the sugar-sweetened kind, so don't go there.

Soft drinks often have caffeine, which really is addictive. Teens who start early with caffeine-containing soft drinks may have a real challenge if they decide they want to quit. Phosphoric acid in some soft drinks is another drawback, tending to increase nutritional requirements for calcium at a time significant stage of bone formation.

Be sensible about fat intake. Some fat is absolutely necessary, and most Americans need more of the omega-3 fats than the more convenient omega-6 fats. The present balance tends to be about 10 times as much omega-6 as omega-3, and the ratio needs to be closer to three times as much. Government studies indicate that about 25% of calories from fat is a reasonable amount (as compared to the present 40% average).

Find a family activity that your daughter will enjoy now and be able to enjoy when she has children of her own. It may be as simple as incorporating bird watching into a walk three times a week or bowling a couple of times a week, but the activity should be regular and last for about an hour. In bad weather, walk the mall if necessary. Sports are fine but tend not to last into adulthood.

Give your daughter a good self-image by praising her for her genuine successes. Girls with self-confidence need not try to copy today's supermodels, who are generally undernourished in every sense of the word. Encourage your daughter to select a role model with more profound values than most of today's celebrities.

Obesity is usually not a failure in a single system, but several circumstances conspiring to result in calorie intake exceeding calorie expenditure. Use your maternal wisdom to balance your daughter's life at this meaningful time.

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