Ensure your kids grow up with good eating habits and a healthy lifestyle, and you’ll be protecting them from the threat of obesity and a lifetime of weight and health issues, says John Cosgriff
You only have to walk down the street or enter a school gate today to realise that our children are fatter and less fit than a generation ago. It’s possible that this current generation of children will be the first to live shorter lives than their parents. And this is because of obesity. Obesity is a health problem because it is associated with many diseases which shorten people’s lives. It is a risk factor for major killers like diabetes (high blood glucose) and heart disease (hypertension, high cholesterol, heart attacks, and strokes). We all know how difficult it is to lose weight once we have gained it. And unfortunately, children who develop obesity in childhood become obese adults.
Childhood is the best time to establish a healthy eating and activity pattern that can protect against future obesity. Parents are important role models for healthy eating and exercise; as well as providing, at least in the earlier childhood years, the food that their children have access to. They are also important “encouragers” of active participation in sports and physical activity.
What can parents do to encourage their children to maintain a normal weight? The solutions are not rocket science and are rather old-fashioned in approach.
So what can a parent do if they think their child is overweight? It is useful to talk to your family doctor about your concerns. However, in my experience, the best approach is to move the focus from the weight to healthy eating and increasing their physical activity.
Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes and it does take time and concerted effort, but a healthy weight is achievable and desirable for everyone, children and adults alike.
- The consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. Today’s children have much greater access to sugary drinks than other generations. Often these drinks are cheaper than alternatives like milk. So what does this mean in practice? Parents need to limit their children to one glass of sugary drink per day. Tap water is a good cheap alternative at other times.
- Eat breakfast. There is good evidence that eating breakfast helps reduce the total number of calories consumed in a day, as often children skip breakfast and lunch then, unsurprisingly, snack in the late afternoon on high-calorie, non-nutritious food.
- Limit eating out. This is a polite American term for saying “stop eating takeaways”. Takeaways are generally more calorific and higher in fat and sugars than home-cooked meals. Therefore, try and limit takeaways to once a week. Takeaways includes food like pies, fish & chips and pizza. This may seem difficult in today’s society, where parents are often both working and have less time to prepare meals at home. However, to truly address the issue of obesity, we must reduce the amount of calories our children and teenagers consume.
- Limit television watching to less than two hours per day. TVs and computers are ubiquitous in our homes today, and for children their use should be limited. In fact, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children under two years old do not watch TV ever. Children and teenagers need to encouraged and supported into spending free time in a more active manner. Not only with organised sport like soccer or netball, but they should increase their activity levels throughout the whole day, e.g. walking to school, playing outside in the garden, or kicking a ball about after school. This does sound somewhat old-fashioned, but it is certainly true that today’s children are less physically active than previous generations of children. And to assist with this desired lifestyle change, TV should be banned from the bedroom.
- Eat family meals together. When was the last time you ate dinner as a family around the dining table with the TV turned off? Having family meals seems to reduce obesity as there is a higher-quality diet consumed. There are also important psycho-social advantages to eating together, including opportunities for children and parents to talk about their day and what’s going on in their lives.
- Limit portion size. Weight gain occurs when the calories consumed are greater than the energy expended. Thus it is important to limit portion size, using common sense to dictate the amount of food to serve up. It is also important that parents do not allow their children to develop overly restrictive eating behaviours.
John Cosgriff is a South Auckland GP with an interest in youth health, and is a dad to three boys.