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When parents become personal trainers: How to help a young child lose weight

Breanna Bond lost weight the old-fashioned way. She ate better food, took walks after dinner and turned down snacks offered during visits to friends' houses.

In a little more than a year, she dropped 40 percent of her body weight and became an avid swimmer. She also passed fourth grade.

Her fitness secret? A mom on a mission.

“What it came down to was tough love,” said Heidi Bond, 41. “Once I knew I had the right formula (of exercise and healthy eating), I hit it hard with everything I had.”

Bond was both parent and personal trainer, helping her daughter overcome childhood obesity without destroying her self-confidence. It was a difficult path to navigate, one that an increasing number of American families are traveling, often without clear directions.

Over the last 30 years, obesity rates among children aged 6 to 11 has more than doubled, growing from 7 percent of that age group in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, parents have become worse at recognizing when their child has a weight problem, as a new study in the June edition of Childhood Obesity noted.

In light of the expanding waistlines of Americans of all ages and widespread misconceptions about how best to lose weight, health researchers and parenting experts agreed American families need help.

Reducing childhood obesity will require better communication between doctors and parents, as well as more moms (and dads) like Bond, who altered her eating and exercise behaviors to set a good example for Breanna, said Dustin Duncan, an assistant professor in the department of population health at New York University's Langone Medical Center and lead author on the study about parents with misperceptions about their child's weight

“We have to help parents think through the health consequences of obesity” and emphasize that “baby fat” isn't always something a child grows out of, but rather, something that sometimes must be shed one baby step at a time, he said.

A public health crisis

During his research, Duncan heard many friends and colleagues describe their struggles to understand what a healthy child looks like.

“A lot of people told me that pediatricians never talked to them about … (their child's) height and weight,” he said. The consensus, even in the medical community, often seems to be that heavy children will “grow out of it.”

This confusion and nonchalance has created a major public health issue, Duncan said. According to his team's research, which used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, “as high as 78.4 percent of parents (from 2007 to 2012) perceived their obese child as just about the right weight.” The probability of a child's weight being appropriately perceived by a parent declined by 30 percent from the early 1990s to today, the study noted.

Childhood obesity, defined by the CDC as a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex, puts young people at a greater risk of sleep apnea, joint issues and psychological problems, the CDC reports. Additionally, it can lead to serious health complications like heart disease, diabetes and stroke later in life.

Prevention, as well as proper treatment for children who are already overweight or obese, is crucial to helping children lead healthy, full lives, Duncan said. But parents can't be blamed for failing to address a child's weight if they lack the awareness to acknowledge it's a problem.

Starting the conversation

At 9 years old, Breanna weighed 186 pounds. She was bullied at school and struggled with basic physical activities like climbing the stairs.

There was the one upside of the severity of her daughter's weight problem. Heidi Bond couldn't ignore it; she knew she had to take action.

“I did everything I could with the tools and education I had at the time,” said Bond, who detailed Breanna's journey back to a healthy weight in “Who's the New Kid?: How an ordinary mom helped her daughter overcome childhood obesity — and you can, too!,” that was released in May.

She took Breanna to four doctors, including the family pediatrician, a holistic healer and a psychologist. Again and again, she was met with a frustratingly casual attitude, the kind of response Duncan said often characterizes conversations about overweight children.

“One doctor said, 'Have you thought about joining a dance class?' as if that alone could fix the problem,” Bond said.

Doctors likely fail to prioritize weight loss when working with the parents of overweight or obese children because of the brief window of time they spend with each patient, Duncan noted. If a child comes in with a sore throat or ear infection, it's unlikely that the health care provider will use the opportunity to have a conversation about obesity.

Additionally, doctors and parents alike are sensitive about harming a child's self-confidence, said Monique Prince, a clinical social worker and parenting coach. Fears about further harming the body image of a child being bullied by their peers about their weight can halt helpful conversations before they start.

But even a rushed or awkward conversation would have been better than the silence she was often met with, especially since the answer to Breanna's weight struggles turned out to be a straightforward mix of exercise and eating well, Bond said.

“We need to get out of our current mindset around kid culture,” in which we let children spend their childhood snacking on McDonald's and slurping Capri Sun drinks, she said. “Parents need to wake up and learn what the right food is.”

Taking action

Bond altered Breanna's daily routine gradually, instituting a nightly walk and improving the family's eating habits little by little.

In the process, Bond boosted her well-being, losing 15 pounds and gaining a better understanding of which foods should fill her fridge and pantry.

“It was as if a cloud was lifted. I felt great and energetic,” Bond said. “Even today, we eat healthy all the time.”

The Bond family's journey illustrates two of the lessons Duncan offers for parents worried about a child's weight: modeling healthy behavior, and keeping the focus on lifestyle changes rather than on what the scale shows.

“Parents need to watch their own weight and be role models for their kids,” he said. “And they should be concerned about stigma.”

Overweight or obese children already face bullying from peers, so parents should be supportive throughout the weight-loss process.

Prince echoed this idea, noting parents can commiserate with their child when he or she misses a favorite snack without allowing him or her to give in to temptation.

“The most child-centered way (to approach weight loss) is to have the entire family adopt healthy eating habits,” Prince said. “It has to be done with empathy for the child because we want to improve their self-confidence, not make them feel more discouraged.”

Duncan also highlighted the need for parents to start a conversation about weight with their child's doctor, to ensure that the young person continues to get the correct amount of nutrients each day.

Although disappointed by her own interactions with doctors, Bond agreed the medical community has an important role to play in raising awareness about the risks of raising overweight or obese children. She worries about how long it would have taken her to notice that her son, Nathan, then 5, was also on the path to an unhealthy life if Breanna hadn't been visibly struggling.

“I didn't even realize how overweight he was,” until running alongside Breanna and eating better helped him become thinner and more energetic, she said. “He's 9 years old (now) and he weighs as much as when he was 5.”

Now 13, Breanna has blossomed into an active teenager, participating in swimming competitions and joining a water polo team.

“If I hadn't helped her get healthy, I would have never known the athlete inside of her,” Bond said. “Weight loss brought my daughter back.”

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas