Want to avoid having obese children? Teach them healthy habits early

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Obese boy snacking at a McDonald's restaurant
Obese boy snacking at a McDonald's restaurant
via Flickr

The image is fast becoming an iconic one of our times: an overweight child tucking into junk food, fizzy drinks and an ice cream.

When the children get on a healthy eating plan or an exercise regime, they confess of feeling guilty about what they would usually eat. So far we have tended to blame obese children, criticising them for their couch-potato lifestyle.

But there is someone else we ought to be blaming also – parents. Part of parenthood is providing them with a healthy, happy life.

Encouraging children to eat healthily can often seem like a challenge in itself. However, by getting children involved in understanding the basic principles of healthy eating the fundamentals of leading a healthy lifestyle can be instilled from a young age.

As parents, the best way we can encourage young children to develop healthy habits is for us to live a healthy lifestyle by avoiding unhealthy tendencies such as junk food, smoking and excessive drinking. Instead we should embrace regular exercise and eat a healthy, balanced diet.

We should welcome Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s introduction of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, or a “sugar tax”.

After all, it is critical that all levels – parents, educators, public officials and health care providers – continue to work together to promote wellness, look for innovative ways to help our children so they grow into healthy citizens and educate others.

I respect children who understand that when their parents are not taking them to a fast-food restaurant, it is not some form of punishment.

I respect children who do not gain pleasure from bragging about fast-food runs but who are proud of eating breakfast along with more fruit and vegetables.

Our children may, and in most instances do, inherit our eating and exercise habits. Obese parents raise obese children. We may be unaware that we are role models of behaviour that our children can pick up. Children usually do as we do, in spite of what we may say.

For example, do you put butter on everything? Do you eat mostly pap or potatoes and meat, and rarely fish or vegetables? Do you eat sweets and chocolates as regular snacks? Do you insist on dessert at every meal? Do you reach for food every time you’re stressed out? Do you consider exercise a chore? Do you always take the lift instead of the stairs?

Do any of these habits sound familiar? If you answered yes to more than a few of these questions, you are likely to be contributing to your child’s chubbiness.

What does your child’s future look like?

Health experts say although the genetic influence is real, it is not the only predictor of a child’s future weight. Dieticians say if both parents are overweight, there is a strong likelihood that without intervention their child will be an overweight adult.

It means that making appropriate changes in diet and exercise at a young age can totally change the outcome. In fact, positive behaviour changes that children make seem to be more effective than similar efforts by adults, in part because they haven’t had the bad habits as long as the grown-ups have.

We need to shift our energy and our thinking to creating a wellness society – a society that emphasises good nutrition, physical activity, and disease prevention. What better way is there than to start with our children.

A healthy lifestyle means instilling good eating and exercise habits.

With millions of South Africans trying to lose weight at any given time, attaining that healthy lifestyle, particularly while still young, is easier said than done.

As parents, we should play a key role in addressing this problem. It is easier said than done as parents; we often complain of hectic schedules.

Part of that truth is that as important as it is, eating together as a family is becoming harder to pull off. As life gets busier – especially in single-parent homes or in households where both parents work – the family dinner can seem like a quaint, romanticised ideal.

Instead of going outdoors for sports or jog, children are glued to televisions, computers or iPads. With so many children spending hours playing video games and watching TV, they don’t get exercise playing outside.

I don’t believe that any single scientific study is infallible, no matter how impressive it seems. But I believe that the collective information from many well-done studies is the best, and maybe the only, way I’ll ever learn what I need to know.

The childhood obesity epidemic is well-documented. For example, a few years ago, a study by Emory University in Atlanta found that a child’s “weight fate” is set by age five, and that nearly half the children who became obese by Grade 8 were already overweight when they started nursery school.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, tracked a nationwide sample of more than 7700 American children through grade school. When they started kindergarten, 12% were obese and 15% were overweight. By eighth grade, 21% were obese and 17% were overweight.

The study concluded that a lot of the risk of obesity seems to be set, to some extent, really early in life.

Also, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents across the world during thein the past 30 years.

The truth is healthy habits acquired during childhood and adolescence have a greater likelihood of following through to adulthood.

Therefore taking collective control of an unhealthy lifestyle will not only help the obese child but will help the entire family feel healthier and stronger.

» Dr Bango is executive director of Aid for Aids, a subsidiary of Afrocentric Health
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