Childhood obesity: What you can do

Nutrition Team

Figures highlighting the growing problem of childhood obesity are now released on an almost weekly basis. The statistics reveal that 1 in 10 6-year olds and almost 1 in 5 15-year-olds is now categorised as obese. These figures have doubled in the last 10 years.

Overweight kids are not only at risk for being teased or socially stigmatised but as they grow up, they are more likely to become obese adults.

Excessive weight leads to health problems - even in children. Type II diabetes, which used to be known as adult-onset diabetes, is becoming increasingly common in children. And children as young as 6 years old are showing at least one risk factor for heart disease.

The good news is that even a five-pound weight loss in some children can lower blood pressure and other risk factors significantly. But how can we tackle the very sensitive issue of our children’s weight?

The HDA report advises that parents and schools both have vital roles to play in curbing this trend.

Dame Yve Buckland, Chair of the Health Development Agency said: "Parents can make a huge impact on rising levels of childhood obesity. The good news is that the evidence shows parents can successfully treat their child's obesity by actively changing the whole family's approach to diet and physical activity and by avoiding couch potato lifestyles. The myriad of child-focussed food advertising is a real challenge, but parents can fight back - it's them paying at the checkout, not their children."

Melanie Johnson MP, Minister for Public Health, commented: "…by helping people maintain a healthy diet and an active lifestyle we can stop them gaining weight in the first place. That is why initiatives like the National School Fruit Scheme and the Food in Schools Programme, which are about improving children's diets and their understanding of healthy eating messages, are so crucial in tackling obesity.“

As pointed out earlier this week (6 October 2003), as little as 31p can be invested in an average school meal, with foods high in fat, salt and sugar often on the menu.

The influence of the food industry and their advertising was also highlighted and Ms Johnston challenged the food industry to reduce added levels of salt, fat and sugar in processed foods.

Baby Fat Versus Overweight

The difference between baby fat and overweight is a determination that’s best left to your doctor. Overweight in children is defined as having a body weight that is greater than or equal to the 85th percentile for ideal body weight for height. But your child’s age and growth patterns should also be considered. For example, it’s normal for boys to first gain weight and catch up by growing in height.

Making Healthy Weight-Loss a Family Affair

Surround them with support. First, let your children know they are okay, no matter what their weight. A child’s self-image is very wrapped up in what their parents think of them, so be very careful not to let them believe you disapprove of their weight or eating behaviours.

Avoid absolutes. Try not to put children on a restrictive diet, which can be harmful to growth and well-being (unless advised to do so by your doctor). Also be careful not to become too strict about sweets and other snacks, which can fit into a healthy diet on occasion. Too-stringent restrictions can cause children to crave "forbidden" foods and lead to overeating when you’re not there to watch them.

Instead, switch to lower fat dairy products and lean meats, and try to cut back on added saturated fats, such as butter and oil in your cooking. Make fast food and sweets occasional instead of regular parts of the diet and encourage more fibre-rich fruits and vegetables.

Lighten up the lunchbox. Child-friendly foods that are advertised so heavily are often not as harmless as they seem. From sugar-coated breakfast cereals to high fat, high salt lunchables, kids are better off with less refined and fewer processed foods. Despite ‘pester power’, parents ultimately decide what goes in the shopping trolley and making healthy choices in the supermarket can make a huge difference to your child’s health.

Think inclusion, not exclusion. Try not to set your children apart from the rest of the family by preparing different meals for them or making them exercise while everyone else is watching TV. This can make them feel isolated or seem like punishment. Instead, focus on finding weekend activities that can become regular parts of your weekly routine. Eat healthy, low-fat meals together as a family and you’ll all win.

Get up off the couch. Reduce the amount of time the whole family spends sitting in front of the TV or playing computer games. One in four children watches 4 hours of TV each day while only 1/3 of schools offer 2 hours of physical activity each week. Try to replace several of those TV hours each week with outdoor play or exercise.

Don’t push. It’s important not to force children into anything. Recognise that they may feel less comfortable than children who are of a healthy weight when engaging in certain activities such as swimming or dancing. Pushing them to do something they don’t like may cause them to develop a hatred or dread of exercise, which is the opposite message you want to send.

Make it child’s play. Help them find a form of exercise they can truly enjoy. Offer to give them tennis lessons, take them to a sports club or sign them up for martial arts classes. But be sure to emphasize that it’s their choice and you only want them to do it if it’s fun.

Be a good role model. It’s simple: children learn by example. This is especially true for young children. Start modelling good habits, such as choosing fruit for a snack, taking the stairs instead of the lift or parking the car further away in the car park so you have to walk to get to your destination. Before you know it, they’ll be mimicking your good examples.

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