Childhood Obesity: What You Need To Know Now

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Childhood obesity is best tackled at home through improved parental involvement, increased physical exercise, better diet and restraint from eating.

Growing up there always seemed to be one child that was singled out and teased about their weight.

I was never overweight, but I knew that I never wanted to be the one that got singled out. The thought of that teasing terrified me.

I tried to do every sport I could, spurred on by my Father’s reminder of ‘keep active’!

If I reflect back on it, he was probably more vocal whenever I looked a little tubby!

I had always been ‘thicker set’ than my siblings (my Mum would describe me as big-boned). Especially when compared to my older sister who could have easily slipped down between the grates of a drain!

I was always a little more round at the edges. And I think that made me more determined to make sure that my children were not overweight.

Childhood Obesity time to get active
“Promoting healthy lifestyles and encouraging fitness are so important for our children’s development and reducing the nation’s epidemic of childhood obesity.” – Marcia Fudge

They are all now in their 20’s, and I am pleased that they do a great job of looking after themselves. But when they were younger I thought it was down to me to ensure that they eat well and stay healthy.

At birthday parties when junk food was everywhere, other parents teased me that, “Your children’s bodies are your temple.”

My children would bypass junk food and happily eat more than their ‘five-a-day’ of fruits and vegetables. Their Achilles heal was water, I had to encourage them to ensure they drank enough water. Curious about how much water should you drink?

I would find it tough to tell them that they can’t have that piece of food that they want ‘right now’. “But Dad I want…..” I would remind myself, it’s for their own good.

A ticking time bomb

The ticking time bomb of childhood obesity has continued to grow. So much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and every major government are working to reverse the trend and reduce the health risks to our children.

Over 10% of children in Reception, and over 20% of children in Year 6 measure as obese or overweight according to UK government figures. Click To Tweet

Statistics also underlined the stark class divide in childhood obesity.

NHS figures show that childhood obesity prevalence for children in reception living in the most deprived areas (12.5%) was more than double that of those living in the least deprived areas (5.5%).

In year six, 26% of children living in the most deprived areas were obese compared with 11.7% in the least deprived areas.

More than twice as many children from deprived areas suffer with childhood obesity.

When we are children and growing up, we become aware that it is wrong to be intolerant of people’s weight as well their skin colour or disability.

And this may cause a parenting challenge. As parents are we overly tolerant to the point of being complacent about our children’s weight? Do we place our child’s immediate happiness over their long-term health?

Whose problem is it?

As parents, we try to enrich our children’s lives with a host of experiences. Possibly too much as they get bombarded with so many influences.

They play sports, join theatre groups and participate in after-school clubs. More than we ever did at their age.

They get influenced by teachers, coaches, leaders and even celebrities but most of all they are influenced by us, their parents.

Here is an old saying “it takes a village to raise a child”, and this makes us all responsible for their welfare.

Childhood Obesity water
“Fixing obesity is going to require a change in our modern relationship with food. I’m hopeful that we begin to see a turnaround in this childhood obesity epidemic.” – S. Jay Olshansky

As a parent, I feel it is my role to ensure my child is healthy and educated in taking care of their own body. That they grow up with positive self-esteem and know how to make the right decisions for them.

As the most influential people in our children’s lives, we should take responsibility to love, nurture and guide them, even when it makes us look strict or severe.

Some parents equate food with love and feel saying no isn’t an option.

Stop, you have had enough

But inevitably good parenting means we should be strong enough to say stop, you’ve had enough.

Allowing a child to overeat on a regular basis is harming them in the long term. No amount of love can undo the damage we can do by allowing bad habits to set in at a young age.

Some parents are more willing to complain to school if their child is bullied about their weight than to guide a child toward good eating habits.

This transfers the problem from their door to someone else’s.

Don’t mistake my intention. In no way am I advocating bullying or suggesting that schools should not safeguard children. I am suggesting that as parents we are ultimately the ones accountable for our child’s welfare.

And if it becomes a problem for our children, then it becomes our problem too.

The contributing factors in childhood obesity

The causes of excess weight gain in children are the same for adults too. This includes factors such as genetics and a person’s behaviour.

Behaviours that contribute to weight gain include sedentary activities such as watching television or other screen devices, not getting enough physical activity, sleep routines and eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages. It has even been suggested that a ‘class divide’ could be a contributing factor.

Genetics

Although there has never been a ‘fat gene’ isolated, there are many suggestions and studies to show that some of us have genes present that are more likely to make us crave carbohydrates.

Okay, my parental gift to my children is that they crave carbohydrates more than other children. Better accept that they will be overweight right now. Wait a second, there are plenty of other factors that can be influenced.

Food choices

The word diet frightens adult, let alone children. So let’s concentrate on ‘good food choices’ instead to avoid childhood obesity.

Encourage your child to make good food choices. If you work on the 80/20 rule, you shouldn’t go far wrong.

We take 80% of our calories from healthy food and 20% from foods we consider treats. Click To Tweet

The easiest way to quantify this is probably to use calories. For example, if a child is allowed 1200 calories: 80% or 960 calories should be made up of fruit, vegetables, lean meat, grains etc. and 240 calories can be from snacks and drinks that are not milk or water.

Not surprisingly, 240 calories will not go far in sugary snacks.

Drinking plenty of water is also an easy way to ensure that we eat less and that we don’t turn to sugar-loaded soft drinks.

Child Obesity Sugary Drinks
“If the childhood obesity epidemic remains unchecked, it will condemn many of our kids to shorter lives, as well as the emotional and financial burdens of poor health.” – Richard Carmona

Sugary drinks are often a silent contributor, with many obese people not seeing them as a problem. People usually don’t remember what they’ve had to drink or wouldn’t consider adding up calories gained from drinks.

Just 2 cans of Coke contain 278 calories. For a child, this could take them way over the 20% when using the 80/20 rule, and we haven’t even started adding the food treats!

Supermarkets don’t help us make good food choices

Supermarkets make end caps (the ends of the aisles) very attractive by putting sale and promotional items on them.

Have you ever noticed that these usually contain junk food which contributes to childhood obesity? Chocolates, crisps and biscuits can often be found here and are quickly thrown in a trolley.

Physical activity

Whose responsibility is it that a child’s exercises? Sometimes it can be hard to squeeze this into a day, but really there are only 2 days a week that most parents are entirely responsible for their child’s exercise. School takes care of it the other 5 days.

A simple walk into town or to visit a friend can be a sufficient activity.

As parents, we could shift the focus away from exercise and look to limit sedentary activity. But how many of us think of this let alone actually do it?

I’m stunned when I read newspaper reports that ‘the average five-year-old spends over three hours each day on a tablet’ or that a ‘girl aged four is having physiatric treatment for her iPad addiction.’

Childhood Obesity Exercise
“In neighborhoods without a usable park or playground, the incidence of childhood obesity increases by 29 percent.” – Darell Hammond

One has to ask where is the parental input. What happened to riding a bike? Or climbing a tree? Or walking to the shops? Maybe life has become so busy that we forget to take care of our children as well as ourselves?

It is not just the children, many adults could do with increasing physical activity. And if the children joined in, this would take care of the children’s activity levels too.

Lack of sleep

Sleep deprivation increases energy intake by increasing hunger. Being tired alters hormone levels and increases appetite and hunger, especially for food rich in fat and carbohydrates.

Sleeping less also leaves more time to eat. Often when the body is tired and naturally has low energy levels.

Snacks are a short-term and unhealthy way to gain the energy required.

Decreasing physical activity

Tired people don’t have the energy to exercise as much as those who get sufficient sleep.

Sleep deprived children can be more likely to sit and watch television or use a tablet than go for a bike ride or walk.

Sleep deprivation can also make children extraordinarily grumpy, and a grumpy child is never fun to deal with!

Could a class divide be contributing factor in childhood obesity?

Remembering the statistics mentioned earlier, there is a strong suggestion that a class divide could be affecting the prevalence of childhood obesity. There is a higher incidence of obesity in deprived areas.

Fruit and vegetables are often more expensive than less healthy alternatives. A family on a strict budget or one that is struggling financially will fall foul to this price differential.

Poor financial standing can also contribute to the number of extra circular activities a child takes part in. However, this does not mean that children in deprived areas are or need be less active.

Could these factors be adding to the growing number of obese children?

Leading by example

As we know, the suggestion that genetics and certainly behaviour can contribute to obesity. Children are not responsible for their genes, and they look to us to set good examples of behaviour.

There are a host of behaviours that affect childhood obesity, and it’s down to us to look at ourselves to see what behaviours we need to change so that we can influence their choices. It’s not easy, and if you need help getting back on track with a healthy diet this will help.

So, what can we do?

Start with simple things to help your whole family eat more healthily.

Increase the amount of fruit and vegetables. If they don’t eat any just start with one or two a day. Five portions of fruit and veg a day isn’t a tough target, once you are on your way.

Childhood Obesity Cooking
“Kids see cooking as a creative outlet now, like soccer and ballet. It gives me hope that things like fast food, childhood obesity and the horrible state of school lunches can be addressed by kids and their parents.” -Graham Elliot

Cut down on fatty, salty and sugary foods.

Cut out sugary drinks. This is an easy way to save calories.

Try to eat more chicken and fish and reduce red and processed meat.

Serve smaller portions to children than adults.

If your child loves food, then they could be interested in cooking with you. Let them, try cooking together.

If you can, sit down to eat as a family as often as you can. It is also beneficial to involve children in planning and preparing meals.

You can set a good example, and they can learn about healthy eating.

Don’t watch TV when you eat

When we eat, our priority should be enjoying our food! It can also a great time to catch up with one another and talk to the children about their day.

Use coloured plates. An American study has shown that using a plate of a different colour to the food you are eating can help reduce the amount that is put on the plate.

This is true when serving ourselves so let your child control their own portions with some guidance. Let good habits start now.

Ensure your child gets enough sleep. They will be healthier and happier for it, and you may get some well-deserved quiet time!

These simple changes will not only ensure healthier children but healthier adults.

After all, we want to increase our chances of being around to watch our children grow up.

So, what is the most important contributing factor?

The answer is that there is no single factor that is more important than the others or more responsible for the increase that has been seen regarding childhood obesity.

There are so many variables that can affect a child’s weight that we must consider them all.

The most important thing to remember is that small changes can help a child to become healthier.

Children are different shapes and sizes. Boys are different to girls and children grow and develop at varying rates.

This can make it hard to know where our child fits on the weight scale but if you have any concerns, see your GP.

At the end of the day, our children depend on us to be responsible for them and prevent childhood obesity.

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David Brett-Williams