Helping our fat children

2009-04-14 00:00

Between the sixties and the nineties the incidence of obesity in children within the United States tripled, in comparison with an increase of only 1,6 times amongst adults. Clearly our next generation is overtaking us —unfortunately in an area that has severely negative consequences.

Currently in South Africa one in five children is overweight or obese. Children who are overweight are two to three times more likely to develop into obese adults. These children also have a greatly increased risk of developing illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), sleeping and breathing problems, bone conditions such as weakening of the hips and fractures, as well as liver and gall bladder disease. Not to mention the psychological and social implications, with many obese children suffering from poor self-esteem and depression.

Childhood obesity is mainly due to unhealthy eating habits, but also stems from the fact that children today are a lot less active than in the past. Gone are the days of children playing soccer in the street after school, or riding their bikes back and forth between friends’ homes. Those activities seem to have been all too readily replaced with sedentary entertainment behind security gates.

Coupled with reduced physical activity, children nowadays also typically consume high amounts of fast-release foods. These food choices create an environment where the body strains to maintain normal blood glucose levels and fat storage is enhanced. Repeating this pattern on a daily basis sets the child up for severe weight problems and future disease.

Much overeating is due to the availability of larger, “better value for money” portions. Over the past 20 years portion perception has changed dramatically: pizza slices have more than doubled in size, muffins have tripled in size (from an average 40 grams to 115 grams) and a standard fizzy drink used to be 185 millilitres yet is now 500 millilitres.

Even when reducing our portion sizes, we can still be eating excessive kilojoules in hidden forms without being aware of it. This is referred to as “passive overeating” where

foods are loaded with fats or sugars, thus substantially increasing energy intake. Examples of these include sugar-sweetened drinks, ready-flavoured popcorn (fresh or microwavable) and “energy-boosting” drinks.

Weight loss in children needs to be approached differently to that in adults because adults have reached their maximum height and are fully developed whereas children still need to grow in height and their organs need to continue developing. Also, we don’t want to convert the obese child into an adolescent obsessed with food, weight and body image. What is really necessary for improved health is a lifestyle change.

That change begins with increasing physical activity, and encouraging healthy eating habits.

Physical activities should be fun and enjoyable — not chores done solely for weight loss. Try to encourage outdoor games and activities and limit the time spent in front of the computer and TV. Children and teens should participate in at least 60 minutes in total of moderate physical activity most days of the week, preferably daily. This total time can be made up of activity periods lasting 10 to 15 minutes each. Remember that children imitate adults. Start adding physical activity to your own daily routine and encourage your child to join you.

Eating habits should be adjusted to include reasonably-sized portions of lower-fat foods. Instead of chocolates, biscuits and sweets, rather have a variety of healthy snacks available such as fruits, vegetables, yoghurt and nuts.

Lifestyle changes are always more effective and sustainable when the whole family is involved. Why not reassess your family’s eating and behaviour patterns — and embark on a healthier lifestyle together, today.

• Sharon Gregersen is a consulting Dietitian. She can be reached at

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