Prevent obesity in your child

By Dr Monda Ang’awa

Obesity is now a world wide epidemic affecting adults, adolescents and children.

More and more children and adolescents are either overweight or obese and many others are getting fatter. More than two thirds of these overweight children will become overweight adults.

Genes inherited from parents are often blamed but that is not entirely true as the gene pool cannot change that fast. Scientists have proven that parental obesity doubles the risk of a young child, whether thin or overweight, becoming an obese adult. In addition, the environment we now live in supports obesity because it promotes less physical activity and more eating — for example, eating in front of the television. Too much television is harmful to children, as it is not only a sedentary activity, but also exposes children to influential advertisements for fast foods, sugary cereals and unhealthy snacks, which children love. Many children are driven to school while fewer are walking to school than before.

Fat cells change

Achieving a healthy weight becomes more difficult as children get older because fat cells change in number or size depending on a person’s age. They multiply during two growth periods: early childhood and adolescence. Overeating during those times increases the number of fat cells. After adolescence, fat cells tend to increase in size rather than quantity. Losing weight after adolescence, then, reduces the size of the fat cells but not their number, so weight loss becomes much more difficult.

Obesity causes diseases

Obese children and adolescents have poorer health than other children because they have unhealthy cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Excessive weight predisposes a child to heart disease, asthma, gallbladder problems, sleep apnoea, liver abnormalities, cancer and full-blown obesity later in life. There is a dramatic increase in Type 2 diabetes in children largely due to the increase in obesity. Yet this disease has always been a disease of adults.

Obese children suffer major social and psychological problems — depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, suicide and violence. Childhood obesity is also partly responsible for the declining age of onset of puberty in girls, with the subsequent increased risk of breast cancer.

Fat proof

Teach children sensible eating habits early before they have free access to food because food preferences are learnt and cultivated, they are not in-born.

Giving small frequent healthy meals with lots of whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables instead of two or three large meals.

Letting children choose their own food portions because they naturally eat 25 per cent less when they choose their own portion size. When they are given larger portions their bite sizes are larger and they eat more.

Create a traffic-light diet. Green for go (low calories); yellow for ‘eat with caution’ (medium calories) and red for ‘stop’ (high calories).

Getting rid of tempting junk food from the cupboards at home and limiting fast foods, high-sugar and commercial packaged snacks. Make sure snacks are healthy and offer fruit and fresh vegetables and plenty of water to drink instead.

Focus on foods like oats, dried beans and soy that raise blood sugar more slowly than others.

Limit television, video games, and computer use to a few hours a week and instead involve the children in other activities like library visits, music lessons and family outings.

Many children are chronically tired. Make sure they get plenty of rest. Put them to bed early enough so they awaken naturally in time for a healthy breakfast.

Make your child feel loved unconditionally. Don't criticise a child for being overweight. It does not help and such attitudes could lead to low esteem and eating disorders, which are even greater dangers to health.

Lead by example. Proper eating and lifestyle habits should be a family affair.

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