Only YOU can prevent overweight children

It’s hard not to notice that obesity is on the rise in this country. And excess weight isn’t just a problem for adults anymore.

Overweight children

One in three children in the UK is overweight and one in ten is clinically obese. Not only are kids at risk of being teased or socially stigmatised, but as they grow up, between 40-70% of obese children will become obese adults. Although there are many different causes of obesity, including genetics, for the majority of our kids, a combination of diet, environment and lifestyle is to blame.

Excessive weight can lead to health problems - even in children. Type II diabetes, which used to be known as adult-onset diabetes, has had to drop that description because the disease is becoming increasingly common in children, due to obesity.

And as many as 3/4 of obese youngsters have at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor or associated health problem, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. The good news is that even a five-pound weight loss in some children can lower blood pressure and other risk factors significantly.

But a big problem is many of these children aren’t getting the help they need to return to a healthy body weight.

Studies show many parents underestimate obesity in their children. Some simply assume "baby fat" will be lost when they hit their growth spurts, while others are afraid of broaching the subject and hurting that child's feelings. But putting off doing something about it can mean increasing the chance your kids will go through the rest of their lives overweight.

How should you approach your child’s weight? If your actions are too restrictive, you can end up damaging their attitude towards food or their self-esteem. It’s a tough position for any parent, but with the help of these tips, you can help your kids achieve a healthy weight:

Baby fat versus overweight
The difference between baby fat and too much weight is a determination that’s best left to your family 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. Your doctor will have your child’s weight and height records and be well-equipped to make this assessment.

Making healthy weight-loss a family affair
Once you’ve sought the opinion of your doctor, there are a number of things you can do to help your child achieve a healthier weight - best of all, the whole family can benefit, too:

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 the "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.

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, like hiking or canoeing, 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 all child’s play. Help them find a form of exercise they can truly enjoy. Offer to give them tennis lessons, send 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.

Check out the MEND programme, a healthy lifestyle programme for overweight children and their families.

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