Family Meals Focus
The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter
Children and weight: Are current guidelines helpful? Do they do harm?
by Ellyn Satter, MS, MSSW, Dietitian and Family Therapist
For a PDF of this issues of Family Meals Focus, click here.
Before we get started, know this: I have put the medical terms “obesity” and “overweight” in quotes to make clear that these are terms used by some others but not by me. Now to the issue at hand.
Intensive lifestyle intervention based on United States health policy is recommended for “obese” two-year-olds: those whose W/H ≥95th %tile,1 and “obese” six-year-olds: those whose BMI ≥95th %tile.2 Are these guidelines helpful? Do they do harm?
Intervention based on nutrition/health policy
In spite of the fact that even intensive, long-term, multidisciplinary programs produce modest weight loss, the impetus to try to slim children down remains data-resistant and strong. A February 2022 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Academy) position statement emphasized the role of RDNs in contributing nutrition and food access programming and intervention to multidisciplinary programming to prevent/treat child “overweight/obesity.”3 This includes screening for children whose BMI exceeds the 85th or 95th BMI percentile and weight reduction intervention: decreasing children’s dietary caloric density, limiting food portion sizes, teaching foods-to-eat and foods-to-avoid, and increasing physical activity. The Academy position is based on “better” results with RDN involvement in 3 systematic reviews, all of which showed tiny BMI z-score decreases: 0.07 to 0.13 (1 to 2 Kg).4-6
A far more exhaustive metanalysis of thousands of journal articles by the US Preventive Services Task Force (Task Force), a highly respected independent panel, found that only multidisciplinary adolescent weight interventions with 52-114 hours’ contact time showed similarly small reductions in BMI z score, averaging 0.20, or 3 Kg.7
Similarly, metanalysis of school-based childhood obesity prevention programs showed no reduction in child BMI, skinfold thickness,8, 9 weight, blood lipids, or blood pressure.9
Labels and interventions do harm
The weight of relatively large children naturally adjusts downward starting at birth and continuing until they are 12 or more years old.
“Overweight/obesity” diagnosis and treatment, no matter the euphemisms with which they are clothed, disrupt feeding dynamics and undermine children’s homeostatic mechanisms. Despite recommending continued striving for weight loss3, 7 and warning RDNs who participate in weight reduction programming to prepare to treat eating disorders coming out of the programs,3 neither the Academy nor the Task Force3, 7 found evidence that current policy-driven interventions did harm. However, neither review addressed the behavioral and feeding dynamics research. Children who were labeled overweight, even if they were no heavier than their peers, felt flawed in every way–not smart, not physically capable, and not worthy.10 Nine-year-old girls classified as overweight at age five years showed increased restraint, disinhibition, weight concern, increases in weight status, and body dissatisfaction.11 Preschool and school-age girls whose food was restricted at home were compared with unrestricted girls when all were given free access to “forbidden” food during a sham task in a research laboratory. The restricted girls ate more than unrestricted girls, felt bad about themselves for doing it, and weighed more.12 Teens who dieted using “healthy” means (exercised, ate more FV and fewer high fat foods and sweets) were just as heavy or heavier five years later than those who dieted using unhealthy means (skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, using diuretics and diet pills, smoking). All showed evidence of disordered eating.13 Mothers of children classified “overweight/obese” said they felt guilty, sad, and responsible for their child’s weight and that family members, children’s physicians, and others blamed them for letting their child get too heavy.14
Accepting the child’s weight avoids abnormal weight gain
Compared with children whose weight is perceived as “about right,” there is considerable evidence that accepting a child’s weight contributes to their consistent growth and even allows them to adjust to lower weight percentiles. Conversely, children who are perceived as “overweight/obese” gain weight faster than is natural for them. Independent of the children’s actual BMI, children of parents described by health professionals as “accurately perceiving” their child’s “overweight/obese” status were heavier over time than children of parents described as “failing to recognize” their child’s “overweight/obesity.”15 Being labeled “too fat” at age 10 years significantly predicted obesity at age 19 years, independent of actual BMI status and also controlling for household income, parental education, race, and age at menarche.16 Again, independent of the children’s actual BMI, over 3500 Australian children followed from 4 to 13 y/o had a greater increase in BMI z-score when their parents perceived them as being “overweight” than when parents saw them as being “about the right weight.”17
Children’s growth naturally adjusts toward the mean
We have known for decades that the weight of relatively large children naturally adjusts downward starting at birth and continuing until they are 12 or more years old. Early intervention risks interfering with that natural adjustment. Sixty-four percent of infants with a WL z-score +1.0 to ≥+2.0 (85th to ≥95th percentile) had a BMI z-score of 0.0 (50th percentile) at 8 y/o.18 Rapid early weight gain was associated with greater height and lean body mass at 8 y/o, but not with greater fatness.19 Sixty percent of children who were classified as “obese” at 2 y/o had slimmed below that classification by age 8 years.20 At age 13 years, children whose W/H is ≥95th %tile have a >50% probability of having an adult BMI ≤30.21 The build (leanness and heaviness independent of fatness) tracked in nine y/o studied 50 years later but fatness did not. There was no excess adult health risk from childhood or teenage heavy build or relatively high body fat. On the other hand, the thinnest children who became obese as adults had the highest adult health risk.22 Most children slim down as they get older, and the numbers from disparate studies are impressively consistent. Seventy-five percent of infants and toddlers identified as obese/overweight (≥120% relative weight/height or skinfold ≥ 85th %tile) slimmed down as adults. Seventy-five percent of infants and toddlers whose relative weight/height ≥120% mean had BMI in the “normal” range as adults, as did 60 to 75% of preschoolers, and 40 to 60% of school-age children. The nine-year cohort of a sixteen-year longitudinal study found that weight gain in infancy was a poor predictor of 9-y/o obesity. Three of four infants classified as “obese” had slimmed into the “normal weight” category, and the fourth had slimmed to follow a consistent growth trajectory that was above the “normal weight” category.24 Similarly, in the sixteen-year cohort, “obese/overweight infants” showed no greater risk than thin ones of growing up fat.25
Children and weight: help without harming
Does this mean that we do nothing at all? Absolutely not! Instead, monitor children’s growth and support their consistent growth, including their natural growth adjustments, by teaching parents to follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) from birth.26 Flag the child’s medical record for periodic assessment of fdSatter/sDOR adherence and ongoing consistent growth. As outlined in a related issue of Family Meals Focus,27 detect early growth acceleration or faltering and intervene by identifying and correcting factors that disrupt feeding dynamics, the child’s energy balance, and the child’s growth trajectory. Avoid direct or indirect attempts to get the child to lose weight. Such attempts interfere with children’s natural slimming and with weight maintenance throughout life.
For more about providing, not depriving and assessing children’s growth, see Ellyn Satter’s Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.
- Barlow SE. Expert Committee recommendations regarding the prevention, assessment, and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity: summary report. Pediatrics. 2007;120:S164-S192.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for obesity in children and adolescents: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA. 2017;317:2417-2426.
- Hoelscher DM, Brann LS, O’Brien S, et al. Prevention of pediatric overweight and obesity: Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based on an umbrella review of systematic reviews. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2022;122:410-423.e6. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.11.003
- Mead E, Brown T, Rees K, et al. Diet, physical activity and behavioural interventions for the treatment of overweight or obese children from the age of 6 to 11 years. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Jun 22 2017;6(6):Cd012651.
- Al-Khudairy L, Loveman E, Colquitt JL, et al. Diet, physical activity and behavioural interventions for the treatment of overweight or obese adolescents aged 12 to 17 years. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2017;6(6):CD012691-CD012691.
- Salam RA, Padhani ZA, Das JK, et al. Effects of lifestyle modification interventions to prevent and manage child and adolescent obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2020;12(8):2208.
- O’Connor EA, Evans CV, Burda BU, et al. Screening for obesity and intervention for weight management in children and adolescents: Evidence report and systematic review for the US Preventive Services Task Force. JAMA. 2017;317:2427-2444.
- Hung LS, Tidwell DK, Hall ME, et al. A meta-analysis of school-based obesity prevention programs demonstrates limited efficacy of decreasing childhood obesity. Nutr Res. 2015;35:229-240.
- Luepker RV, Perry CL, McKinlay SM, et al. Outcomes of a field trial to improve children’s dietary patterns and physical activity. The Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health. CATCH collaborative group. J Am Med Assoc. 1996;275:768-776.
- Davison KK, Birch LL. Weight status, parent reaction, and self-concept in five-year-old girls. Pediatrics. 2001;107:46-53.
- Shunk JA, Birch LL. Girls at risk for overweight at age 5 are at risk for dietary restraint, disinhibited overeating, weight concerns, and greater weight gain from 5 to 9 years. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104:1120-1126.
- Birch LL, Fisher JO, Davison KK. Learning to overeat: maternal use of restrictive feeding practices promotes girls’ eating in the absence of hunger. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78:215-220.
- Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Guo J, et al. Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare 5 years later? J Am Diet Assoc. Apr 2006;106:559-568.
- Gorlick JC, Gorman CV, Weeks HM, et al. “I feel like less of a mom”: Experiences of weight stigma by association among mothers of children with overweight and obesity. Childhood Obesity. 2020;17:68-75.
- Gerards SM, Gubbels JS, Dagnelie PC, et al. Parental perception of child’s weight status and subsequent BMIz change: the KOALA birth cohort study. BMC Public Health. 2014;14:291. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-291 PMC3983903,
- Hunger JM, Tomiyama AJ. Weight labeling and obesity: a longitudinal study of girls aged 10 to 19 years. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168:579-580.
- Robinson E, Sutin AR. Parental perception of weight status and weight gain across childhood. Pediatrics. 2016;137(5):e20153957. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-3957
- Wright CM, Marryat L, McColl J, et al. Pathways into and out of overweight and obesity from infancy to mid-childhood. Pediatr Obes. 2018;13:621-627.
- Wright CM, Cox KM, Le Couteur A. How does infant behaviour relate to weight gain and adiposity? Proc Nutr Soc. 2011:1-9.
- Van Cleave J, Gortmaker SL, Perrin JM. Dynamics of obesity and chronic health conditions among children and youth. JAMA. 2010;303:623-630.
- Whitlock EP, Williams SB, Gold R, et al. Screening and interventions for childhood overweight: a summary of evidence for the US preventive services task force. Pediatrics. 2005;116. doi:10.1542/peds.2005-0242
- Wright CM, Parker L, Lamont D, et al. Implications of childhood obesity for adult health: findings from thousand families cohort study. BMJ. 2001;323:1280-1284.
- Serdula MK, Ivery D, Coates RJ, et al. Do obese children become obese adults? A review of the literature. Prev Med. 1993;22:167-177.
- Shapiro LR, Crawford PB, Clark MJ, et al. Obesity prognosis: a longitudinal study of children from the age of 6 months to 9 years. Am J Public Health. 1984;74:968-872.
- Shapiro LR. Results of a sixteen year longitudinal study of children from the age of six months to sixteen years. Verbal report. UC School of Public Health; 1988.
- Satter E. Chapter 2, Feed and Parent in the Best Way. Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. Kelcy Press; 2005:23-62.
- Satter E. Children and Weight: How to help without harming. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus/12-helping-without-harming-with-child-overweight/
For more about following the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding and letting children grow up to get bodies that are right for them, see Ellyn Satter’s Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.
Related issues of Family Meals Focus
Teaches child and family feeding assessment and secondary intervention with established feeding problems including picky eating, weight acceleration, growth faltering, and special needs.
This intervention-based, intensive workshop shows professionals how to do Satter-based secondary intervention: To accurately apply the feeding dynamics model and sDOR approach in doing assessment and treatment with established feeding problems.