Plump is not healthy
Good eating habits among children must come from the parents
Parents rarely complain that their child is too fat. Many think that plumpness in children is a sign of good health and wellbeing. However, obesity, or being overweight can cause serious health consequences both in childhood as well as later on.
Children who are overweight have a tendency to grow into adults who are overweight and therefore are at greater risk of developing illnesses such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension and high blood pressure. Experts now believe that a lifetime of healthy eating should begin at infancy.
"Obesity in children below the age of 12 is rapidly increasing, especially in the city," says Consultant Paediatrician, Dr. Dilrukshi Ruberu.
She attributes this to the modern lifestyle; where children tend to eat more fast-food and junk food, have erratic mealtimes and less exercise. Heredity also plays a role - children are more likely to be overweight if their parents are overweight.
Being overweight can cause a multitude of health problems in children, explains Dr. Ruberu, although parents seldom see it as an issue. These include:
- Sleeping disorders such as sleep apnoea - a condition during which breathing is interrupted during sleep.
- Type 2 diabetes
- Chest infections that last longer than usual
- Early menstruation in girls as young as four or five.
- Lessened confidence and low self esteem in older children.
How do you identify obesity in children? Children have high energy requirements because they are growing. While a varied and nutritious diet is essential for their development, if they take in more energy in the form of food than they use up, the extra energy is stored in their bodies as fat.
Obesity is determined by looking at the child's height and weight, from charts which indicate the ideal weight according to the height. The child's rate of growth, sex and age must also be taken into consideration. When treating childhood obesity, it is rarely necessary to put the child on a strict diet, says Dr. Ruberu. Often, a few changes in eating patterns and the elimination of certain foods such as junk foods, sweets and large amounts of milk can make a considerable difference. In extreme cases, dieting may be necessary, but should only be carried out under the guidance of a qualified dietician.
She points out that many children today have a full daily schedule, where they rush from school, to various classes and other activities. As a result they have quick meals on the go, often resorting to sweets, short eats and other fast food items which are high on calories and low on nutritional content. Also, these types of foods tend to be heavily promoted specifically at children.
It is important to have regular, home-cooked meals which make up a balanced diet of carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and proteins - for example, red rice, meat or poultry and vegetables that the child likes to eat. Eating out can be limited to special occasions, she says.
Moreover, children should never be force-fed, since every child from infancy has a natural instinct about how much he needs.
They should be taught to eat slowly and savour the food; mealtimes must be relaxed and enjoyable. Milk is not essential after the age of one year, Dr. Ruberu adds, for this is when solids become more important.
Another reason for the increase in childhood obesity is the sedentary lifestyle that most children lead today. It is not unusual for children to spend hours in front of a computer, television, or doing homework. Physical activity is no longer an essential part of their day.
Every child should be encouraged to take part in some kind of sport or at least go for regular walks, advises Dr. Ruberu. Swimming is not always the best choice because it does not burn as many calories as other forms of exercise. Good eating habits must begin during the first year of life, she says, by introducing a variety of fruits and vegetables, putting off sugar for as long as possible so that babies do not get used to the taste, and never forcing the child to take more than he or she needs.
"It must really come from the parents," she says, pointing out that the responsibility lies with the adults to set an example with good eating habits and to encourage it in their children.