In the UK, one in five children is overweight and one in 10 is obese. In fact, excess weight among children is currently the most serious child health-care issue and on the increase in most Western countries of the world.
It can be difficult to tell whether babies or children are overweight just by looking at them. Some families are genetically bigger than others, and some children appear large for their age and will end up being large adults. An objective way to tell if a child is becoming overweight or not is to continue plotting his weight and height regularly on the growth chart in his child healthcare record (red book). If the weight measurements begin to outstrip the height measurements and start to cross lines upwards, this may be a sign that he is gaining excessive weight. In this case, speak to your GP or other trained health professional.
Social aspects of obesity
The society we line in encourages inactivity and constantly promotes convenience foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. While there may be some truth in thinking that individuals are not wholly to blame for obesity, the fact remains that excess weight has serious repercussions on health and brings other problems in its wake. Overweight children are often bullied and teased at school, and may become depressed, which impacts on the whole family.
Healthy eating habits start early, and even the youngest of children will quickly pick up good and bad habits from those around them. For example, there is no point telling a two-year old to eat his vegetables when you don't eat any yourself. Set a good example for your children by eating healthily yourself.
The other important factor in becoming overweight is lack of exercise. Parents have only to compare their own childhood habits with those of the present generation to see how sedentary life has become. The average child spends up to six hours a day watching television or playing computer games. Fear of crime also keeps children indoors or means they are ferried about in cars.
What can you do
- Breast-feed your baby. Breast-feeding is associated with lower levels of childhood obesity
- Encourage healthy eating with three meals a day and a couple of healthy snacks, such as fruit, yoghurt or low-fat cheese
- Make sure your child has a good breakfast, as this has been shown to lead to decreased snacking in the morning and higher achievement at school
- Increase physical activity to help children maintain a healthy weight. Do fun things as a family that involve being active, e.g. cycling, football and swimming
- Use low-fat products for children over five and read the labels to ensure the fat hasn't been replaced with sugar
- Offer your child milk or water rather than sugary drinks
- Allow only 150 ml (5oz) of fruit juice per day. This counts as one of the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, but is naturally high in sugar, so should not be allowed freely in the diet
- Grill, boil or bake foods without added fat, rather than frying
- Avoid take-away or convenience foods, as these are often very high in calories
- Walk your child to school at least a couple of times a week
- Restrict the amount of time your children spend watching TV or playing computer games
- Do not allow children to eat in front of the television
- Set a good example. Most children learn food choices and habits from their parents, especially their mothers
- Implement regular family meals
- Do not allow children to 'graze' or snack continually throughout the day
- Reduce children's access to high-calorie foods
- Offer children smaller portions and do not allow them second helpings
- Include your children in the planning and preparing of healthy, balanced meals. Make food preparation fun, and include items they enjoy. This is a good time to introduce foods they have previously refused or not tried before. By including children in the preparation, they are much more likely to try new tastes
- Do not label foods as food or bad, or use food as rewards or treats; you will only make the 'bad' ones more tempting
- Allow your child to make his own judgement about how much he should eat. Children's appetites vary widely from day to day, and parents who excessively control their intake leave them poorly equipped to regulate their own appetites
Exercise for children aged 2-6 years
- Adventure playgrounds are lots of fun and encourage social interaction with other children. Find out what recreational facilities for young children are available in your area
- Climbing frames are great for improving balance and strength
- Swimming, diving and playing games in a pool are great energy burners; they are also very safe forms of activity as there is no weight bearing on growing bones. Find out where your nearest public pool is and whether they have swimming lessons for young children.
- Encourage your child to play outdoor games, such as 'tag', or indoor games, such as musical chairs, if the weather is bad. Chasing games are fun and they increase the heart rate.
- Walk with your children whenever possible instead of using the car. Park a few roads away from your destination and slowly build up the amount of time you and your child spend walking
Taken from The Contented Child's Food Bible by Gina Ford