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Nearly a third of UK children (aged two to 17) are overweight and in 2010, 10% of children as young as four and five years old were classified as obese. Today it is thought that at least one in six children is obese and the proportion looks set to rise.
While it is clear that obesity is one of the most serious and prevalent health epidemics facing our society today, parents are aware of the potentially damaging impact a negative body image can have on a child. A balanced and realistic relationship with food is fundamental to maintaining a healthy weight right from the start.
Rather than enforcing a strict diet, make long-term changes to healthy eating for all the family, and at the same time, encourage your child to get involved in sport or exercise. Limit the time they spend in front of a computer or television screen.
Many children find competitive sports daunting, so talk to their teachers about what can be done at school to encourage alternative activities, and also to discourage snacking.
Don’t deprive them of treats, but make sure they understand that they are exactly that: ‘treats’ that can be indulged in only occasionally, not habitually.
Although it is important to obtain genuine enjoyment from eating good food, overindulgence in rich, sugary, fatty and processed foods can all too often lead to an ‘addiction’ or a cycle of comfort eating.
Make sure your child gets pleasure from the foods they eat and do this by varying their diet and trying lots of new tastes and diversifying their palate from as early an age as possible. Don’t force anything – remember most kids have an aversion to many types of vegetables and other traditionally wholesome and natural foods. In most cases, they will eventually learn to appreciate foods they once passionately rejected – maybe even Brussels sprouts, broccoli, peppers and peas!
Because weight problems tend to run in families, make positive changes together as a family – this should include regular family activities (such as swimming, cycling, hill-walking, or just a ball game at the local park) and ensuring the whole family sits down together at least once a day for a balanced, shared meal.
Make fresh fruit readily available and always put an apple or a banana in your child’s school bag or lunchbox, and try to serve all family meals with a portion of steamed vegetables – set an example at the kitchen table and also try cooking a variety of simple, healthy dishes with your child. They may find it inspiring!
Make any changes slowly and gradually, and avoid using negative words such as ‘fat’ – a child’s body image is very fragile and an overweight child may already be exposed to bullying and unkindness from peers, and so a gentle and sensitive approach from elders is required at all times.
The bigger picture
In the UK alone, obesity (and its numerous associated health effects) costs the NHS an estimated £1 billion a year. Although how obesity is defined and addressed will always be prone to controversy (the use of BMI is certainly not without its critics, with many questioning its validity), the damaging ramifications and repercussions of its undeniable and pervasive existence cannot be ignored.
Obesity has serious consequences for long-term health and sadly, unhealthy habits which begin in childhood all too often set the precedent for an unhealthy, unfit and overweight adulthood. “BMI research concludes early parenting habits can make or break childhood obesity trends." This is why it is so important to confront the problem of childhood obesity, through parental awareness, intervention/prevention and targeted education programmes.
Many overweight children do have overweight parents and so it's often a matter of family lifestyles as mentioned earlier.
MoreLife (previously Carnegie Weight Management) estimates that, in the UK alone, 4.3 million children will each put on as much as half a stone over the summer holidays because of “unstructured free time and an uncontrolled diet." These are obviously two things parents do have the power and responsibility to change, although generally the older the child, the less control the parent has over their activity schedule and diet.
If you're concerned that your child is overweight, speak to your GP and ask to be referred to a dietician or see a nutritionist or nutritional therapist from the private sector.