Childhood obesity prevention

Under no circumstances should Slim & Save products be given to children. The following article focuses on suitable methods to help avoid and cure childhood obesity.

Latest figures from the National Child Measurement Programme in 2015/161 suggest that 9.3% of children aged 4-5 are obese with a further 12.8% being overweight. As children progress through their primary school years, obesity and overweight increases. By year 6, a staggering 19.8% of children are obese, with a further 14.3% overweight. These worrying statistics mean that a third of 10-11 year olds are overweight or obese.

Being overweight or obese is a big cause for concern in children; not only is it likely to affect a child’s self-esteem and social interaction, but it increases their risk of developing health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease which are affecting people at much younger ages than before.

Interestingly, our perceptions of what a child with a healthy weight looks like has changed over the years, as we have got used to seeing bigger sizes. A London-based study in 2015 surveyed 3000 families about whether they thought their child was obese, overweight or a healthy weight. Results showed that nearly a third of parents underestimated the weight of their child2. The researchers suggested that as a society we have become so used to obesity that we have lost our sense of a healthy weight.

If you’re overweight or obese yourself, you may be particularly interested in helping your children make healthier choices when it comes to food and lifestyle, to help prevent your children struggling with their weight as adults. If you’ve never done it before (or not reviewed it for a while), you could check your child’s weight status by using the healthy weight calculator on the NHS Choices website. This will give you an indication of where your child is (underweight, healthy, overweight, obese), and whether you should consider making more changes or seeking professional advice.

If you want to take stock, review and consider what you can do to support your children to help them become healthy and active adults, here are our top 10 tips.

1. Start young – babies and toddlers

Don’t underestimate the importance of starting young. Exposing babies to lots of textures and flavours from an early age is really important. It’s also important to remember that studies have estimated that a baby needs to try a new food over 15 times before he/she can decide if they really don’t like it.

When it comes to feeding your baby, it’s best to steer clear of the special ‘baby foods’ and give them ‘normal’ healthy, home-cooked family food (without the addition or salt or sugar). For example, many of the flavoured baby porridges are sweetened; normal porridge oats or plain instant oats with mashed fresh fruit is a much better alternative.

Many snack foods marketed for babies actually contain added sugar in the form of fruit juice, e.g. apple juice concentrate. For example, apple rice cakes aimed at 7+ month babies consist of rice cakes coated in apple juice. We know that eating an apple whole or in chunks is great, as the sugars naturally inside the cells of the apple are released slowly during digestion. However, when juiced, the natural sugar (fructose) is quickly absorbed in a similar way to normal sugar. Sweet tasting snacks also gets babies used to expecting a sweet taste, which could affect their diet and weight as children and adults.

2. Role modelling & family mealtimes

Your children will pick up on your fruit and veggie likes and dislikes early on, and it’s great to try and talk about all fruits and veggies with positivity. Your children will naturally model many of your habits around eating, so try to stay positive and model healthy eating and healthy snacks to your children. Doing physical activity as a family also helps to model a healthy lifestyle and show that it can be fun! Studies have also found that eating together as a family can have significant benefits, perhaps due to role modelling. One study found that when eating together as a family, a child may be 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier foods and 12% less likely to be overweight3. In addition, one study found that regular family mealtimes were a more predictor of academic achievement than time spent in school!4.

3. Cut back on sugary drinks

We’ve all heard the news recently about the new ‘sugar tax’ which aims to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. Dietary surveys have found that sugary drinks are one of the biggest contributors of sugar intake for children. When we hear ‘sugary drinks’, we often think about non-diet fizzy drinks, energy drinks and milkshakes – we may not think about fruit juices and smoothies. The blending or juicing process to make fruit juices and smoothies releases the sugar to the outside of the cell, meaning the ‘natural’ sugar in the fruit is readily absorbed in a similar way to the sugar found in regular coke. Children over 5 should have no more than 150ml a day of fruit juice or smoothie. In children under 5, fruit juices should be watered down (1 part juice to 10 parts water), and consumed at mealtimes only to protect dental health.

4. Snack attack

Sweet snacks are often not only convenient, but they’re what our kids are demanding. However sugary snacks can be harmful for both their weight and their teeth. Healthy snack options to try include oatcakes, rice cakes, dry cereal (cornflakes and rice crispies are fairly low in sugar), small sandwiches or pitta pockets, fruit, veggie sticks, nuts and seeds. Also be aware of hidden sugars found in seemingly healthy products. For example – cereals bars often contain more than 40% sugar, and even those marketed as ‘healthy’ are often laden with added sugar; dried fruit (especially those marketed for kids lunchboxes) can often be sweetened with extra sugar.

5. Perfect portions

Due to the fact that children generally have such a wide range of calorie requirements (e.g. due to their varying physical activity levels), there are no set portion sizes which can be recommended for your child. However, guidance does exist and may be that reducing portion sizes of certain foods is required. The Caroline Walker Trust ‘CHEW’ resource contains some good information for children aged 5-11 (available to download from here). For toddlers, check out the ‘perfect portions for toddler tums’ from the British Nutrition Foundation (available to download from here ).

6. Cut the screen time

Setting time limits with your children on time in front of the TV or on computer games or phones is really important to reduce their time spent sitting down, being ‘sedentary’. If you’ve never addressed this before, involve your children in deciding what is reasonable, and start from there. By involving your kids and explaining the benefits to them, you’re more likely to get buy-in from them.

7. Get active as a family

Spending time being active as a family can really help burn excess energy and encourage a healthier lifestyle. It could be something as simple as bike rides at the weekend, regular trips to the park after school, or challenging the whole family to a race by taking part in the junior5 (or adult6) park runs as a family.

8. Perfect packed lunches

If your child is at school or nursery, packing a healthy packed lunch which varies across the week is an important contributor to their daily nutritional intake. The ‘perfect’ packed lunch consists of the following:

  • A starchy food – e.g. bread, pitta bread, wrap, bagel, pasta, noodles or couscous. Rice cakes, breadsticks and oatcakes are other alternatives
  • A dairy product – e.g. yoghurt, fromage frais, cheese. Choose reduced fat versions where available
  • A serving of protein-rich food – e.g. lean meat (chicken, ham, roast beef fillings to sandwiches), fish, egg, beans, lentils and pulses. You could try including kidney beans or chickpeas into a pasta salad, or hummus as a dip for veggie sticks
  • At least one serving of fruit – this could be fresh fruit, dried fruit, or tinned fruit in natural juice (drained). If your child doesn’t like fresh fruit, try grating some apple into a pasta salad, or add some tinned/fresh fruit into some custard or whip to make a tasty dessert. Grapes, clementines (peeled and segmented for them) and berries work nicely in packed lunches – invest in some little pots to portion them up and avoid mess
  • At least one serving of vegetable or salad item – this could be salad or vegetables in a sandwich, wrap or bagel, a side salad to accompany the lunch, an addition to a pasta salad, or some pre-prepared carrot, pepper, celery, spring onion and cucumber sticks
  • A drink – it’s best to stick to water or milk – or if your child is over 5, a small carton of pure unsweetened fruit juice (from concentrate). Check labels on fruit juice cartons to ensure no added sugar

9. Get them cooking (and growing)

Food related activities are a great way to get kids interested in eating healthily. Often when children do food-related activities at school or preschool, it is sweet baking (think chocolate cornflake cakes and cookies!) Children generally get less opportunities to be involved in savoury food preparation and cooking in the home. Food activities like making fresh fruit kebabs, making soup from scratch, making cheese scones and pitta-bread-pizza are fun and easy things to try. Activities around growing foods can also help children get involved and interested in eating healthily. f you have the space in your garden, why not buy some planters and grow some vegetables? Things like lettuce and runner beans are easy ones to try. If you don’t have the space in a garden, a window herb box is a great alternative.

10. Involve the children

Family based approach is best. If your children are old enough (primary age and up), try to involve them in decisions around changing diet and lifestyle. Having a complete overhaul of your child’s lunchbox is likely to be met with a negative reaction. However, having a discussion about how healthy they feel their current packed lunch is, and making some small changes with their consent is likely to be a better way to approach change. This will help them make more informed decisions and empower them to be more independent with food choice. The ‘Be Food Smart’ app from Change 4 Life has proved very popular with school-aged children7. It enables you to scan in your food and see how much sugar, saturated fat and salt is in the produce. You may even find your children can teach you some new facts about the sugar content of foods in your cupboard!

Where to go for more support

If you are concerned about your child, their GP or school nurse is the best person to see as a starting point. There may be additional support or services available that they could refer you to, such as a dietitian or psychologist. The child’s age and growth pattern will often determine whether the focus would be to keep a child’s weight stable or actively try to lose weight. If you would like to look at some more information, including healthy recipes and fun physical activity ideas, you can visit the Change 4 Life website.


1 no longer available.
2 Summary of the key points of the original paper available from (NHS have removed this page).
3 Hammons and Fiese, 2011
4 For more information on this, visit The Family Dinner Project.
5 Park Run Events.
6 Park Run.
7 Change 4 Life.

Written by Annemarie Aburrow RD BSc (Hons) PGDip, Slim & Save Dietitian.


  1. Very good advice. However, I believe it is very important that children (and adults) do not get into using products that contain artificial sweeteners or sugar derivatives. These are known to be extremely bad in many ways, including the way the body assimilates and/or changes these products. They are transported into dangerous chemicals by the body and should not be encouraged in any way.

  2. Start them young on healthy home made fresh foods ,, when mine were babies I cooked a batch of all sorts of veg blended it and put it ice trays in the freezer as I worked it was so much easier ,never bought any of the jars or tins of food basicly couldn’t afford them,,as they got older I also watched the portion size and any treats my they were given plenty fruit in lunch boxes and a piece of fruit if the were hungry ,,they never watched much telly were always out playing no computer games in them days all to easy now to had a child a tablet instead of taking them to the park ,,,they are now in their forties and still the same fruit when hungry and my grandson the same out playing football ,swimming loads of fruit , teach them well without brain washing them and it will continue ,,,,,xx

  3. Role modelling is hugely important – i grew up with parents who were always dieting and i think thats affected me… ive been trying to teach my son that anything is good in moderation.

  4. Having actually dealt with this issue with my son for 3 years on my own, due to undiagnosed hypothyroidism and doctors blaming me for over feeding him, instead of checking for any medical reasons! I have quite a lot of experience in dealing with this issue. I started out with a meal planner for the week discussing meal choices and snacks, as with all of us portion control was key along with ensuring we all ate the same meals! We had taster days, where we would try new foods, quinoa, avocado, quorn,tofu, turkey breasts and rashers and rate them. We would also look up recipes on the internet to try and make together too, along with the meal planner we also made a lucky dip of activities to do after school and on weekends, swimming, tennis, bike riding, football, greenway and canal walks which is a great way of choosing an activity without the obvious arguments that can arise from more than one child’s choice. Doing this as a family brought us closer together and also educated us on the nutritional values of foods and the importance of physical activity! We have never looked back !!

  5. I must say, though this article has many weights. It’s crucial to not just eat healthy but for one to understand portion control and the importance of exercise.

    Things may happen in life. But a child needs to be equipped with the basics of portion control, you can eat healthily but moderation is crucial! My son can have a scoop of ice cream but it will only be 1 scoop!

    Not only this but also, it’s important to exercise. Not just to keep fit but for your overall wellbeing. Mentally stimulate your child and it beats depression.

    It frightens me that parents are only looking at the eating green (this is good) but they’re so many more factors that can have an impact on obesity. It could be one thing that can trigger a complete mental breakdown in children and adults. However, if the foundation is set clear we are able to equip our children with the necessary tools to overcome problems in their adult life.

    My parents are all healthy and my first take away happened when I was 12 at McDonald’s. I’m now overweight! My point is the focus shouldn’t only be on eating healthily but how to have a balanced healthy lifestyle.

  6. Educating kids from early years eating right food can help them have balanced and healthy eating as well positive attitude towards life . The role of parents is very crucial . I totally agree with this

  7. Education. Educate your child about portion sizes. Food contents. Teach them to cook. Properly from scratch . They need to see the adults around them not eating ‘bad’ foods. One of my reasons for starting SnS was to change my own habits which has lead to me being overweight. I want to give my son the tools he need to deal with any issues he has healthily and not to rely on food as a crutch as I have done . I want to teach him love food but not be scared of it and not worrying about it like I have my whole life. I want my son to be a healthy weight and to do that he needs to see me being happy with my weight and full of confidence so that he doesn’t think that weight is an issue. Child obesity is on the rise because fast food is cheap and healthy food is more expensive. It’s easy to get a chocolate fix rather than make a healthy snack. Children need the right influences and information to make the correct choices when it comes to their food. My son eats home cooked meals and he is happy to help prepare food. If I can keep him on the right path then he will be a healthy weight.

  8. There should be a meal social time for families. Encouraging daily discussions with food around. Having been an emotional eater learning to cope with uncomfortable topics as a family around a good nutritious well balanced meal is important. My son grew healthy on target and sadly my secret eating was hidden from him. Our meal times were open and healthy. His school lunches were balanced and fulfilling. He cooked with us and shared his day good and bad whilst doing so. I learnt through him as he grew older how to change my own eating and now through sns how not to be an emotional eater anymore. Recommending one good meal, not several for different family members. Embrace the sitting at the table. Take them to restaurants to enjoy well cooked meals from a non child menu (generally consisting of rubbish). Let them select food for themselves.

  9. Eating out I find hard with children as most places the child portions are so huge. A friend of mine was told at one restaurant that a kids portion was the same amount as an adults just cheaper to encourage families to eat out there. So I always ask for a small plate and dish up part of the meal for them. I also now do all my food shop online so I can’t give in to the I want sweeties tantrums n only buy exactly what I planned.

  10. Lead by example if your children see you making healthy choices they do too, my youngest (15 ) with learning disabilities has managed to lose 27lbs this year by improving her eating habits and 15 mins a day on the exercise bike.
    She was so impressed by my losses she wanted a piece of the action .

  11. I have a tall, skinny child and it is a real struggle to find trousers to fit him as modern children’s clothes tend to be large around the waist and even with a draw cord they fall down.

    I grew up to be overweight and always worrying about my weight so I ensure that my son eats healthily. For me the main thing is to avoid as much processed food as possible and go with ‘real foods’. Cut down on carbs, they are not really needed, and fill up on energy foods such as good fats and protein. My son will start the day with buttery scrambled egg, his lunch will be salad and cold meat cuts and in the evening we will have a homemade curry. Snacks are cheese and fruits and veg sticks.

    Removing refined sugar from a child’s diet is the way forward and shows immediate results in mood and energy. Also get them moving – find an activity that they enjoy and join in with them

  12. Try not to emphasise foods like chocolate and sweets as “naughty but nice once in a while” and healthy foods as “not as good, but good for you.” If they don’t associate foods with psychological differences and are given all foods in moderation, they will see a bowl of strawberries in the same way they do sweets.

  13. It’s so important to start healthy and balanced eating from the weaning stage!
    I have 2 sons who are 1 & 2 and both love every type of food. fish, vegetables, beans, pulses etc. My husband is Nigerian so I’ve always cooked fresh, ethnic food and I’ve NEVER made separate meals for the boys. They always eat what we eat.

    Friends often comment that their kids would never eat what mine do, but mine have never had any other option, lol.
    As parents, it’s 100% our responsibility to carve the way to a healthy and active lifestyle. We can’t expect our kids to do something if we don’t do it ourselves. We have to LEAD BY EXAMPLE! Something I plan to do for the rest of their lives so that their health isn’t something they ever have to worry about 🙂

    When I was about 15 I was really struggling with my weight and my parents supported me by changing the way we ate as family, we started being more active and I eventually regained my confidence.
    Support and example is what our kids need!

  14. My 11 yr old autistic son would be classed as overweight, his diet is limited but to his sensory issues. We have a rewards system for trying pea sized amounts of new foods – we stick to the same food 20 times. I have managed to introduce several new tastes to him like this. He struggles with heat so training the taste in pea sized amounts is generally cooler so he accepts it easier and the size is less daunting and it works.

    He now eats chicken, tuna and pasta which he would gag on before, he understands the need to move more but due to social anxiety doesn’t like going out – so he uses the cross trainer while he streams youtube on the TV – I think its important to make things work for you’re own children’s needs and around your family life – otherwise things never last if they become a burden or cause you all stress.

  15. I believe that involving the child with healthy food preparation is a fantastic way of showing them that healthy options can also be fun and inventive. Letting them help choose the foods purchased and being involved in the whole “Weekly shop” also helps keep them motivated and become interested in trying new healthy choices. I know this from experience because since starting this slim and save plan 9 weeks ago I got my boys onto healthy eating by doing exactly as I said above and they have lost weight in a healthy fashion, they have both had fun and encouragement and become interested in different foods that they would have never contemplated before…. Cooking healthy meals is now a family affair and fun too.

  16. Great article, my 2 younger children got weighed at school they are both a healthy weight but some other children was classed as obese which really saddened my school mums I allow my children to have treats but also push them to make a healthy choice my eldest is 15 growing boy but he will excercise eat crap excerise i have been honest with my oldest and told him I don’t want him to end up like me consent battle with my weight and he listens and then I have remind him what he eat I believe if we educate our youth then hopefully they will make the right choices but don’t push to hard and make a problem where there isn’t one xx

  17. We have cut out all processed foods, they’re banned from our house! Everything is home made and as fresh and good quality as we can afford. I educate my 7 year old (1 year old twins a bit young yet) I tell her that to be healthy we have to eat healthy and healthy food is natural food. She helps with the cooking often so she knows what real food is and where it comes from. We swap out u healthy things she likes for healthy alternatives, such as homemade ice cream. She also helps to choose and make her packed lunches. With my twins it is easier because they’ve always been on this way of eating and haven’t picked up the bad habits and tastes, we have done baby led weaning so that they decide how much they eat rather than having portion size dictated to them by shovelling their food into their mouths for them.

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