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Help! My Child is Larger in Size but Eats Healthy

Should you be worried if your child is overweight but eats healthy? 

Many parents who are parenting a larger-bodied child worry about their child’s weight and eating. They look for problems like too much fast food or excessive sweets. 

But, some parents find their scrutiny gives them little to worry about.

They watch their child eat fruit and vegetables, snack on nutritious foods rather than cookies or chips, and overall, regard their children as “healthy eaters.” They provide healthy meals and watch their kid make healthy choices routinely.

This situation can be quite baffling. 

My child is overweight but eats healthy

As a pediatric nutritionist, I know all too well that our social norms equate body size with eating habits. The pervasive assumption is that overweight children must eat unhealthy foods.

And this, parents and caretakers, is a myth.

Understanding the Puzzle: Healthy Eating vs. Body Size

Just because a person eats unhealthfully doesn’t mean they will be larger in size or experience weight gain, nor does eating a “healthy” diet guarantee thinness or a socially optimal size. 

The truth is, there isn’t a straight line or causal relationship between what you eat and your body size.

Rather, a complex interplay exists between genetics, lifestyle, social determinants of health, and yes, dietary habits.

This is a frustrating fact because assumptions are made about children with large bodies.

One is that a child’s diet must be unhealthy or full of “bad” foods like sugary drinks and fruit juice, or “junk” food and candy

Granted, some children who carry extra body fat do have a diet that contributes to their size and health, but that’s not the case for all children with large bodies. 

Even more bewildering is when children with poor eating habits seem to have leaner bodies. 

Genetics of size in children quote

The Role of Genetics in Body Size

The genetic component of our body size is significant, with research indicating that 40 to 70% of a child’s body size is attributed to their genetic inheritance.

The belly roll from Grandpa Tom or the broad hips and shoulders from Aunt Mary can get passed down through the generations. 

And your child’s height is highly heritable with up to 80% of it attributed to genetics. 

As such, much of a child’s body size comes to them naturally, determined even before they were born. 

But this begs the question: What influences the other 30-60% for size? Or the other 20% for height?

While there is natural diversity in children’s body sizes, their environment and lifestyle habits contribute to their health and size, as well. 

Balancing the Plate: What Does “Healthy” Eating Look Like?

Healthful eating is more than avoiding sweets and “junk” food. It includes a balanced and diversified intake of all the food groups, including proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy (or fortified alternatives), and healthy fats. 

healthy eating for kids - balanced diet

Food variety is crucial for nutrient adequacy but also for emotional satisfaction, both of which foster a positive eating experience and environment. 

Beyond the Fork: The Environmental and Lifestyle Factors

A whole child approach to health considers not just what your child eats, but also other environmental factors that influence their health, such as regular physical activity, sleep quality, and screen time. 

  1. Movement and Play: Physical activities are vital for children of all ages, whether through unstructured play in younger children or through structured activities, like sports, and other recreational pursuits for older kids.
  2. Sleep: Adequate and uninterrupted sleep is critical for day-to day functioning, optimal learning and behavior, and for regulating appetite and promoting overall health.
  3. Screen Time Management: Limiting screen time like watching TV or playing video games prevents too much sedentary behavior, or inactivity.

Encouraging daily movement, establishing a consistent sleep routine, and managing the amount of screen time viewing are priority areas for cultivating a healthy lifestyle and supporting your child’s overall health and well-being.

Celebrate Healthy Eating in Larger Bodies

If your child is growing up with a large body, and eats a healthy diet, celebrate! 

Food provides the nutrients your child needs to grow and develop well, and be in optimal health.

There’s no upside to pursuing weight loss through controlling calories, restricting sweets, or aggressively trying to change your child’s body size, especially when there’s a genetic inclination to be large.

And especially if they have no health concerns like high blood pressure or pre-diabetes. 

In fact, doing so often backfires, prompting more eating or seeking extra food, not to mention the risk for causing low self-esteem and poor body image.

Rather, I advise you shift your focus from weight or size to health and wellbeing so you can support your child optimally. 

While you do have some influence over the environment your child is growing up in, it’s also true that there may be things you cannot change. 

Remember, your child’s body size does not determine their worth or value in this world. 

If you’ve got a good eater on your hands, great! Instead of harping on food, focus on improving the other lifestyle habits we know benefit your child’s health. 

Most importantly, your acceptance and support of your child at every size will nurture them as they grow. 

My child is overweight but eats healthy

Final Thoughts and Further Learning

If your child is a “healthy” eater and overweight, be confident that nutrition is in a good place. 

Don’t let diet culture and social pressures influence you to restrict food, put your kid on a diet, or problematize their eating when there isn’t a problem. 

Instead, are there other positive lifestyle changes you can focus on? 

You can guide your child toward long-term health and happiness, regardless of their size! 

Are you building the healthy habits your child needs to thrive? Take my quiz and find out!

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