A popular children’s rhyme, ‘Chubby Cheeks, Dimple Chin...’ reminds me of my neighbour’s son who was a cute, chubby baby at birth. Even at five years, the cutie pie had not lost his chubby baby fat. The family kept saying “he’s a healthy boy” and ignored a big problem that was ahead of them–childhood obesity. If your child is overweight and you realise it’s time to take charge of things to help your child, this article can show you just how to do so.
What is childhood obesity?
Childhood obesity is a condition in which a child is significantly overweight for his or her age and height. Being overweight can pose serious health hazards in the long-run.
Psychological and physiological effects of childhood obesity
In general, children and adolescents who are overweight or obese are most likely to be obese as adults. Obesity in the early years of life can lead to the development of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol in adulthood. A lot of other health problems like bone and joint troubles, sleep apnoea and cancers may arise too. Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, low self-esteem and social problems like bullying and stigmatisation may start at a very young age. Parents must understand the underlying causes and seek medical help, if necessary.
Ideal weight for children (in the age range of 5-8 years)
The concerns about your child's growth can give you sleepless nights, especially when comparisons are made between children of the same age. It is recommended that you check the Indian Academy of Paediatrics Height and Weight Charts for boys and for girls as a guide and monitor their child’s growth on a regular basis. Maintaining a pattern chart will help track any developmental issues before it’s too late. According to the IAP standards, a five-year-old boy needs to be in the weight range of 16–19 kgs and for a five-year-old girl the ideal weight range is between 15–18 kgs. Body weight more than the recommended range is an indicator of obesity.
Reasons for weight gain in children
The main factors that cause obesity in children are unhealthy dietary habits and reduced physical activity. Heredity too has a vital role to play. Parents need to answer the following questions to know exactly what makes their child overweight.
- Does your child consume high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages frequently?
- Does your child eat excess junk food?
- Does he/she have unrestricted access to energy-dense foods in school cafeterias or outside schools?
- Does your child understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods?
- How many hours in a day does your child engage in physical activity?
- Does your child watch too much T.V. and play a lot of computer games?
- Does your child have easy access to playground or safe play areas?
- Is your child under a lot of pressure to focus on academics and less on sports?
- Do you provide pocket money to buy food in school?
- Does your child commute to school by bus or car instead of walking or bicycling?
- Is your child highly influenced by advertisements of colas and fast-food companies?
- Do you force-feed your child?
- Is heredity the contributor to your child’s excess weight?
The answers to these questions will give you an idea about what you need to change in your child’s lifestyle. If most of your answers are a ‘yes’, then it’s time to sit up and take action.
Solutions: Fitness and proper diet
'Prevention is Better than Cure' is surely the best fitness mantra to control the growing problem of childhood obesity. Obesity is a multifaceted problem and to reverse it, family and community efforts need to be focused on healthy eating and active living. The calories taken in through food and beverages need to be balanced with the calories used in physical activity and normal growth. The crucial point to note here is that overweight children need to slow down on the rate at which they are gaining weight without affecting their normal growth and development. For this, you should consult a qualified nutritionist for personalised solutions.
Here are a few general tips to help your child fight obesity:
- Encourage healthy eating habits. Motivate children to eat loads of seasonal fruits, vegetables and whole grain products. The dairy products need to be essentially low in fat; cow milk is preferred over buffalo milk. Add up proteins in your child's diet through lean meat, fish, poultry, beans and lentils. Serve reasonable amounts of food each time. Encourage increased water consumption with limited intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, sugar, sodium and saturated fats.
- Make favourite dishes healthier. Some of your preschooler's favourite dishes, especially junk food can be turned into healthier dishes with minor changes. For example, adding lots of veggies to whole wheat pasta makes it a yummier and healthier recipe that children love.
- Remove calorie-rich temptations. Calorie-rich foods like chocolates can be easily replaced by a cupful of healthy fruits with adequate guidance and support. Do not tempt your child with calorie-rich food as a bribe for good behaviour.
- Help your kids understand the benefits of being physically active. Teach your child about the health benefits of physical fitness like strengthening of bones, reducing stress and anxiety, helping with weight management. Explain how these factors boost self-confidence.
- Help kids stay active. A five-year-old child needs to be encouraged for free play with an emphasis on fun, exploration, playfulness and experimentation. Preschoolers should involve in unorganised play and activities like running, swimming, throwing, and catching. Children should participate in moderate-intensity physical activities for at least an hour every day. Activities may include swimming, jumping rope, brisk walking, dancing, etc.
- Reduce sedentary time. In addition to introducing activities in your child’s daily schedule, also cut down on sedentary time such as passive vehicle transportation and watching television while eating. Limit screen time to less than two hours a day.
- Be good role models. Adopt an active lifestyle as a family and be a great example. Start adding physical activity to your own daily schedule and encourage your child to join you.
Achieving and maintaining an appropriate body weight is crucial especially during childhood to avoid lifetime repercussions. Focus on small and permanent changes in eating habits for a gradual and sustainable weight loss. Make sure your child adopts a healthy and balanced lifestyle consisting of physical exercise and playtime, small and frequent meals that are healthy, tasty and nutritious to support your child's growth needs.
Let us know in the comments section below if you have more suggestions for parents of overweight children. Let's fight obesity together!
The author is a nutritionist and founder of Nutrify.