How can I change my son’s eating habits?

Q: When I took my seven-year-old son to the GP last week for an ear infection, he made a comment about him being very overweight for his age. I was a bit taken aback because I hadn’t really thought about this before. He does have a relatively balanced diet at home, but can overeat on cakes and biscuits, and tends to eat a lot of crisps and fizzy drinks. He also is not that active. We have tried to get him to join the GAA, but he has not really taken this up. To be honest, myself and my husband have a bit of a sweet tooth and are probably overweight as well. I feel a bit guilty now about my son. You read so much about childhood obesity and I don’t want him to be heading this way. I have tried in the past to get him to stop eating crisps and sweets, but it has not worked. What do you think might get through to him?

A: As is promoted in the media, being overweight or obese poses major health problems. A big predictor of adult obesity is being overweight as a child, as patterns of eating and lifestyle are often laid down in childhood. Unfortunately, such problems are on the increase in Ireland, with the recent task force from the HSE estimating that childhood obesity has tripled in the past decade alone.

So you are right to be concerned and to want to take action. However, rather than feeling guilty about your GP’s warning, try to see it as a positive wake-up call to action. The good news is there are lots of positive things you can do to help your son eat more healthily and to be more active. The best way to make these changes is to adopt a family approach.

Rather than just focusing on your son, see this as a health project for the whole family – yourself, your husband and your other children included. This is not only good for everyone’s health but also provides you with the best chance of success.

The first step is to educate yourself and your children about healthy eating. Take time to research what a healthy balanced diet looks like. There are good child-friendly and clear guidelines available such as the food pyramid or learning to eat a rainbow of foods (

Get into a habit of scrutinising the content of foods and noticing carefully the things you want to avoid such as high fat, sugar and salt. If you feel his diet is otherwise healthy, then the best way forward is to cut down on sugary drinks, crisps, sweets, cakes and biscuits – just doing that alone would have a dramatic impact.

Observe carefully how many of these you eat during the week and look at ways of cutting down. Simple changes can make a difference, for example, perhaps as a family you could decide to have desserts only at the weekend.

Rather than getting into a battle with your son about how many crisps/ sweets he can have, often the best decision is to not have them at all in the house in the first place.

Instead, have a range of other healthy snacks that he might enjoy. You can sit down with him and make a list together. This way you can avoid rows in the first place. It can work well to relax this rule at the weekend, to have a family treats night where everyone is allowed select their favourite snacks.

This works as a good reward and even makes the treats more appreciated. In addition, remember that small treats work just as well as large ones – children can learn to enjoy a small biscuit rather than a large one.

The second area to tackle is physical activity and exercise. You are right that the best way to do this is through your son taking up a sport or physical activity that he enjoys. That way he won’t notice the effort of exercise and gets many other social benefits as well.

Even though he has not shown an interest in the GAA at the moment, do persist with introducing him to different sports that might pique his interest such as martial arts, or other physical activities he might enjoy such as walking the dog or going on a family bike ride.

Also, simple changes to the family lifestyle can make a real difference. For example, could you organise things so that he has to walk to school if he does not do that already? Even if this takes longer or is hard to schedule in a busy life, this simple change could be of enormous benefit, ensuring he always exercises daily. If you walk with him, this could be of benefit to both of you, and it could also be a great time to chat and check in with each other.

In addition, consider having a goal to do something physical as a family each weekend such as a walk in the park, doing a sport together or visiting a good playground – whatever you all might enjoy.

In making healthy lifestyle changes, it is important to present all these positively to the children and to involve them in the process. Maybe have a family meeting and announce that you want to get healthy for the new year and need their help to achieve it as a family. Then listen to their ideas about eating healthily and enjoyable physical activities that they would like to try.

Do seek out support as you make these changes. There is a great family website,, promoted by the HSE that provides child-friendly information on getting healthy through diet and exercise, such as fun family activities and recipes for healthy school lunches. The strength of the website is the many tips it contains and its focus on making small positive changes as a family towards healthy living. You can even register and upload your own tips about what works for you to share with other families.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2012.  John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper every Tuesday.