Childhood obesity

As parents, we want our children to be happy. But sometimes what makes them happy might not necessarily be healthy. Find out how you can strike a balance and prevent obesity in your child.

The number of overweight children in the Middle East and Gulf region has increased dramatically in recent years. In the 1970s the prevalence of childhood obesity in the Middle East was between 4 and 5%. In 2006 this had jumped to 17.6% and in 2008, more than one third of all adolescents and children in the region were obese. The statistics point to a potential healthcare time-bomb for the future, as many lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease are related to the condition. For most children, overweight is the result of unhealthy eating patterns (too many calories) and too little physical activity. Obesity in childhood leads to obesity in adulthood and once eating patterns have been established in childhood, they can be difficult to reverse. Making sure that your child eats a healthy, well-balanced and nutritious diet can directly influence their future good health as adults.

How do I know if my child is overweight?

It can be difficult for parents to determine if their child is overweight, as all preschoolers exhibit their own individual body structure and growth pattern. Children grow in unpredictable spurts and because of this, parents should not make changes to a child’s diet based solely on perceptions of overweight. Instead, any assessment of overweight in a child should be undertaken by a health care professional, as they will need to establish the child’s height and weight relative to their previous growth history.

Helping your overweight child

If a health care professional has determined that your child is overweight or obese, they can help you with a healthy eating and exercise regime to help them get back into a weight range that is appropriate for their growth. Weight loss programs are not necessarily a good approach for most young children, as their bodies are still developing. Overweight children should not be put on a diet unless a doctor supervises one for medical reasons – placing a child on a restrictive diet may mean that they may not receive an adequate amount of energy and nutrients needed for normal growth and development. For most young children, this means that the focus should be on maintaining their current weight while they grow normally in height.

Preventing your child becoming obese

The most important strategies for preventing obesity in childhood concentrate on healthy eating behaviour, regular physical activity and reduced sedentary activity (such as watching television and playing computer games). As a parent, you can help prevent your children  becoming obese by providing them with healthy meals and snacks, encouraging daily physical activity and educating them about their diet. Healthy meals and snacks provide nutrition for their growing bodies while physical activity will reduce health risks and help with their weight management. Educating your child about nutrition will help them to develop an awareness of healthy eating habits that will last them a lifetime. You can help your child attain their optimum weight for their development by:

  • Focusing on good health, not a certain weight goal.
  • Teaching healthy and positive attitudes toward food and physical activity
  • Involving the whole family and not setting an overweight child apart.
  • Leading by example and ensuring that you follow the same advice that you are giving out
  • Eating together as a family as often as possible.
  • Establishing daily meal and snack times
  • Planning sensible portions

The Eatwell Plate

The Eatwell Plate is a very useful  tool to determine how much of the different categories food your child should be consuming each day. To help you further, the following measure count as one serving:

Grain Group

  • 1 slice of bread (brown bread the healthy option)
  • 1/2 cup of cooked rice
  • 1/2 cup of cooked pasta
  • 1/2  cup of cooked cereal
  • 30g ready-to-eat cereal

Vegetable Group

  • 1/2 cup of chopped raw or cooked vegetables
  • 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables (spinach leaves, rocket etc.)

Fruit Group

  • 1 piece of fruit
  • 3/4 cup of fruit juice
  • 1/2 cup of canned fruit
  • 1/4 cup of dried fruit

Milk Group

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 pot yogurt
  • 60g cheese

Meat Group

  • 60-90g cooked lean meat, poultry or fish
  • 1/2 cup of cooked, dry beans
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons of peanut butter

Fats and Sweets

  • Limit calories from these.

These serving sizes can be given to 4-6 year-olds. Your 4 year-old should also have a total of 2 servings from the milk group each day.

Promote a healthy eating lifestyle for your child

  • Avoid labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – all foods in moderation can be part of a healthy diet and you may make food with fat and sugars more attractive in your child’s eyes if you condemn this food group
  • Discourage eating meals while watching television. The TV can be distracting and your child may end up overeating as a result.
  • Involve your child in the shopping and preparation for meals. You can use these opportunities to teach your child about the different food groups and allow them a degree of control over what they want to eat.
  • Make snacks healthy. Instead of offering crisps and cakes, tempt your child with crunchy carrot batons, apple wedges and whole grain crackers with peanut butter.
  • Try not to give your child too much fruit juice and instead offer whole fruit. Juice contains calories but fewer nutrients than the fruits they come from. They may also have added sugar in the form of sucrose.
  • Encourage physical activity for the whole family. This could include walks, trampolining, swimming, bike rides and sporty games. In the hot summer months, visit the malls that offer indoor sporty recreation activities
  • Limit the amount of time your child spends watch television, playing video games and working on the computer to a maximum of 2 hours each day. Not only reducing the sedentary activity will help maintain your child’s healthy weight, it can also help boost their cognitive development by encouraging active thinking.

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