Even as Julie Wandling’s two sons started packing on so much weight that their breathing became labored, she remained silent.
“It never occurred to me to put them on a diet,” she said. “They’re kids — my attitude was let them eat what they want.”
In a nation where experts say nearly a third of children are overweight or obese, many parents like Wandling are at a loss when it comes to sparking change at home. That’s reflected in government data showing no real improvement in the obesity rate despite public officials sounding alarms and calling for drastic changes.
Experts say the problem is that grown-ups aren’t speaking the right language when it comes to kids and weight-loss.
“You don’t want to treat children like miniature adults and prescribe an exercise regimen that barely appeals to adults,” said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.
Children enjoy play and movement by nature, so parents shouldn’t have to force them to get moving, he said. For teenagers, an after-school sport, dance class or even a video game that requires movement, like dancing, are good options, he said. And there are appealing children’s exercise videos set to music.
Pedometers are also surprisingly popular with young children, who see logging steps as a game, Bryant said. “What you’re trying to do is develop a positive attitude toward exercise for the long term.”
By giving her sons options — in fitness and food — Wandling eventually transformed their lifestyle about six years ago.
Previously, the Akron, Ohio, family ate “mindlessly” and didn’t get much activity. Over the years, the pounds accumulated.
“They were getting squishy,” she said. “Pudgy would be a nice word.”
Finding a passion
Alarmed as the boys’ breathing became more worrisome, Wandling started taking her sons out to a variety of activities, from hiking to in-line skating to mountain climbing.
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Eventually, she discovered they were passionate about tennis. Now, her sons practice tennis for hours nearly every day and are ranked in USTA tournaments.
Wandling applied the same theory to food, introducing home-cooked recipes and snacks until she found foods they didn’t resist.
“If you give them enough healthy foods to pick from, eventually they’re going to find something they like,” she said.
Her younger son complained at first that he didn’t “want to eat leaves.” Now 11, Ryan said he’s a fan of the cole slaws, soups and salsas his mother makes.
“I can move around on the court better, and I don’t get tired from running around,” he said. “I used to have heavy breathing and always needed a break.”
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Corbin describes a good dinner as a salad and a veggie burger. He even makes it a point to bring his own food when he goes out, packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and maybe a banana and some cherries.
“My mom doesn’t have to make a lot — I love all fruits,” he said.
Keep kids empowered
Embarking on such a major lifestyle change means deciding as a family that everyone will change.
“The child has to be a part of the decision-making process. They have to feel empowered,” said Dr. Joel Fuhrman, an author of family fitness books who helped the Wandlings get on track.
Instead, experts say adults often inflict more harm than good by setting rules that only provoke rebellion. Some parents become so restrictive that they forbid even small treats like birthday cake. Others deeply humiliate their children, making a fuss in public over what their kids are eating.
Another common pitfall is isolating a child with a special diet while the rest of the family indulges freely, Fuhrman said. That only creates a forbidden fruit syndrome that can make the child yearn for foods that are off-limits.
“When parents get alarmed and reactive, they’re likely to act out of emotion and fear,” said Maria Rago, a clinical psychologist and director of an eating disorders unit at a Chicago hospital.
“Parents are preparing children to take care of themselves in the future,” she said. “The idea is to teach kids to work on solutions while keeping their self-image and self-esteem in mind.”
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