Q: My four-year-old daughter is overweight, but we struggle to get her to eat healthy foods and try new things. How can we talk to her about weight and eating in a way she’ll understand?
Child psychologist and early years teacher Hannah Tranah, childcare development manager at Storal Learning nurseries (storal-learning.co.uk), says: “Talking to children about weight and size in the wrong way can be harmful, so it’s important to go about this the right way - you want them to be healthy, but you also want them to be accepting of their bodies.
“For very young children, the best thing to do is avoid any discussion around weight, size or BMI - these metrics are not the best indicators of health. Instead, factors like nutrition and physical activity play a much more significant role.
“So the focus should be on the amazing things eating healthy foods and exercising can do for our bodies, like giving us the energy to run, jump and play.
“You should also check in on how you and other adults your child spends time with interact and talk about body image and weight.
“Children copy our behaviour, so if they grow up around adults who consistently criticise their own bodies or the bodies of others, they’re likely to take on this negativity too.
“While it’s critical for children to gain an understanding of why a balanced diet and exercise is important, for very young children the most effective approach is ‘less talking, more doing’. To make lasting change, lifestyle adjustments should be gentle and fun. Healthy eating should be a priority for the whole family, not just for your children.
“Realise that as the parent, you have the most control over what the family consumes, so analyse your weekly shop and wherever you can, cut down on the junk and make healthy swaps in stages.
“Try not to worry, as children’s tastes often change with age. Ensure your daughter is given the same food as the rest of the family and make sure you all eat together. Praise her when she tries something new and be patient if she’s slow. This ‘gentle changes’ approach also goes for physical exercise and movement.
“Getting children into the habit of exercising when they’re young and full of energy is much easier than when they’re in their teens or in adulthood. Try out different forms of movement and exercise as a family (even if it’s walking to school instead of driving) and see if there are any physical activities your daughter might be interested in — whether this is taking up in a class or team activity with her friends. This might take some trial and error, but pace it gradually — don’t enrol your daughter in five different new hobbies at once, take your time with it and you’ll be sure to find something she enjoys.”