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Expert Q&A

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Should I put my 11-year-old on a diet?

Asked by Lisa, via e-mail

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How do I put my 11-year-old daughter on a diet? She is 50 pounds overweight, though she looks only about 20 pounds over. She has a lot of muscle. She plays sports year-round. She is a picky, picky eater.

She has asked to go on a diet, but I don't think that an 11-year-old should, even though it's unhealthy to be so overweight. I have told her she will need to give up sweetened drinks, sweet snacks and white bread products. Any other ideas that will not be too drastic but will show results?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Lisa.

With the significant focus recently on childhood obesity, which has been boosted further by Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, this is an important question. Your instinct is correct in that your daughter should not be put on a diet, but it is unhealthy to be so overweight. This puts her at risk for a lifelong struggle with weight and chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, joint disease and gallbladder disease.

It sounds like your daughter is quite active since she plays sports year-round, but don't forget to try to limit her TV time to two hours a day or less and do not allow meals or snacks to be consumed while watching TV.

In addition to giving up sweetened drinks, snacks and white bread products, increasing the fiber in her diet can help, particularly with decreasing belly fat. Try whole grain white bread as a compromise if she doesn't like whole wheat bread. Switch to brown rice and whole grain pasta for dinner. If she eats cereal, make sure that it is a brand with less sugar and more fiber that she still enjoys.

It is important that she eats breakfast every day and consumes portion-controlled snacks at designated times. Limit her juice consumption to 8 to 12 ounces per day and encourage water and low fat milk (not flavored milk or water, which is loaded with sugar).

Finally, make sure that she eats plenty of vegetables every day. This might be challenging but try to engage her in finding vegetables that she likes and preparing them in a way that taste delicious (topped with low-fat sauces or freshly grated Parmesan cheese) or including them in tasty dishes such as casseroles, pasta salads, lasagna and omelettes.

I wrote recently about incorporating veggies into your diet. Here are a few more recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics has more ideas.

Finally, it is important to talk with your pediatrician to help you decide on the right approach and to check basic blood work to look for complications of obesity. If her BMI (body mass index) is in the 85-95 percentile, meaning that she weighs more than 85 to 95 percent of children her age and height, and she has no complications of obesity yet, you should focus more on weight maintenance rather than weight loss. If her BMI is greater than 85-95 percent, and she already has complications of obesity, her calories should be reduced somewhat to allow for slow weight loss (no more than ½ pound or so per week).

But I think it is important not to let your daughter get too caught up with the number on the scale. Focus on helping her make better choices every day and the scale should cooperate.

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