Until recently the battle of the bulge has been fought primarily by adults. Today, however, the largest growing segments among the obese are our children and adolescents.
With this new epidemic come grave health consequences for future generations. While scientists are busy looking at genetic factors, hormonal imbalances, and drugs to correct these problems, we can’t ignore the greatest culprits in this epidemic—poor nutrition and lack of physical activity. The good news is that these are the factors that we have control over. With guidance and support, there is much that parents can do to help their children achieve a healthy body weight.
Decreased activity + poor nutrition = overweight children
Two factors—nutrition (calories in) and activity (calories out)—are the most important determinants of body weight. With unlimited supplies of soft drinks, candy, chips, and fast food, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles it’s no wonder that our children are becoming as supersized as the meals they are consuming.
Regular exercise and physical activity is critical for weight loss and overall health, yet with each passing year our children are becoming less active. The availability and popularity of television, video games, and computers has drawn children out of the baseball diamonds, ice rinks, and parks into the house after school. The average Canadian child watches television for three to five hours a day, according to a study reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2000. When you combine this with the more than six hours a day that children spend sitting in classrooms, it’s easy to see how inactive they’ve become.
School cutbacks have led to the removal of physical education programs, which has worsened this situation. According to The Canadian Teacher’s Federation, only one-third of all now schools have formal physical education programs.
Once a child becomes overweight and experiences physical limitations due to the excess weight, it becomes even more difficult to get them involved in sports and activities. Fear of being teased, feelings of shame, and insecurities may further keep a child away from athletics.
Poor nutrition and excessive calorie intake is the other side of this coin. As families struggle to manage work, relationships, children, and life stresses, they often fall prey to prepackaged, calorie-dense, fast-food options in an effort to save time. These are the foods that children are conditioned to desire as they are bombarded with advertisements on radio, television, and billboards for fast food and junk food.
In the US approximately $11 billion is spent each year to market and promote fast food chains. On average, each child is annually exposed to 10,000 TV commercials for food. These commercials entice children to fast-food chains with offers for toys from their favourite movies and TV shows.
A 15-year Statistics Canada study of boys and girls shows that Canada has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world. The study looked at children between the ages of seven and 13, using data from the 1981 Canada Fitness Survey and the 1996 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. Results from this study revealed:
- Thirty-three percent of boys are overweight, including 10 percent classified as obese.
- Twenty-six percent of girls are overweight, including 9 percent classified as obese.
Health risks of Obesity
Health authorities warn that unless we do something to combat this epidemic, this generation could become the first to have shorter life spans than their parents. Overweight and obese children have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. With this comes the risk of developing diseases that were previously only seen in adults such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, joint problems, asthma, and mood disorders.
The psychosocial effects of being overweight may be as serious as the hazards to physical health. Society has a strong bias against overweight people, typically stigmatizing them as bad, lazy, ugly, and lacking will power. Surveys of children, as young as kindergarten age, indicate that negative perceptions about obesity begin very early in life. Some studies have shown that children believe their obese peers are not as “clean” or as “smart” as other children. The stigma associated with obesity can have a far-reaching impact on children, affecting their self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional well-being.
There are many ways that parents can help and encourage their child lose weight. It’s important not to single out the overweight or obese child; avoid making the child feel bad, guilty, or as though she or he is being punished for being overweight. Instead, keep your efforts positive, and encourage healthy lifestyle changes that the whole family can follow.
Here are some practical suggestions:
- Plan family activities that involve physical activity—walks after dinner, hiking, biking, and swimming. Make the activities fun so that the child looks forward to and enjoys these times.
- Set a routine. Try to have dinner together at the same time each night. If you are going to be home late, make sure that there are healthy snacks in the fridge; e.g., nuts, seeds, dried cranberries and raisins, frozen yogurt, cheese, and vegetable sticks.
- Often we run to fast-food restaurants when we are short of time. Plan your menus and prepare as much as possible ahead of time.
- Use a slow-cooker so the meal can cook while you’re working. This is particularly helpful when you have to run out after work or school for extracurricular activities.
- Get the children involved in meal preparation so that they can learn and participate.
- Monitor portions and encourage the children to eat slowly and chew thoroughly.
- Drink milk or water with meals.
- Don’t stock your cupboards with junk foods or unhealthy choices. If you don’t buy it, they can’t eat it.
- Avoid the temptation to reward children with food (especially fast food). Instead offer rewards such as movies or trips to a zoo or museum.
- Place time limitations on the use of video games, television, and computers.
- Take the time to educate your children about why good health and nutrition is important; the dangers of fast food and junk food; why candy might taste good but is not good for building a strong, healthy body.
- Work with fellow parents to set up after-school activities such as baseball, soccer, swimming, and tennis. The time burden is less when it’s shared among several parents.
- Petition schools to remove soft drink and junk food vending machines from schools, and advocate for healthier food choices.
- Lobby government to restrict fast-food advertisements.
- Lobby government to subsidize health foods to reduce costs.
- Inspire your children by being a positive role model. Making healthy changes in your lifestyle will set a good example for your children to follow—and will also benefit you.
1. CMAJ November 28, 2000; 163 (11).
4. International Journal of Obesity (2002) 26, 538–543.