Should you ever put your child on a diet?
The obesity epidemic is said to be at crisis point, but will being overly-strict with your child's food do more harm than good
When Elle Macpherson recently revealed her struggle to stop her son Cy eating junk food after school, she struck a chord with many parents. In an interview last weekend, she said her 14-year-old was eating 'empty' carbs in the school canteen, and filling up on sugary snacks upon his return home. While the supermodel's response mightn't be the average parent's solution (she created a plant-based, hormone-free protein powder for children), her desire to clean up her child's eating habits will certainly resonate.
The country's obesity epidemic is regularly described as being at crisis point and it's a particular cause of concern for parents, with an estimated one in four children classed as overweight or obese. These children, who are already presenting with related issues such as high blood pressure, are more likely to become obese adults at risk of developing myriad health problems, from cancers to coronary heart disease.
While parents might know the facts, it's not always easy for them to gauge if their child has a weight problem in the first place, or if they're just 'big boned' and growing rapidly. If your child is noticeably heavier than his or her classmates, they could be overweight but the first port of call should be to seek professional advice.
According to Dr Marian O'Reilly, chief specialist in nutrition at Safefood, it can be a challenge, sometimes even for experts at times, to decide if a child is overweight, obese or within a healthy range.
"Because we've all got heavier in society, our acceptance of what's normal and what we perceive to be a healthy weight goes up as well so it's harder to actually decipher. If parents have a concern, I'd say go and speak to their GP or the practice nurse, as they'll be able to definitively weigh and measure the height of your child," she says.
"Children go through growth spurts and sometimes a child, especially around puberty, may gain an extra few pounds, but if it's consistent in terms of what we call puppy fat(and it's lingering), that's when you should speak to the GP or nurse."
Naturally enough, the temptation for parents who think their child is overweight is to consider putting them on a calorie-restricted diet. However, health experts say that this is not the route to take.
"If you talk to dietitians and health professionals who are dealing with this on a day-to-day basis, the advice is let children grow into their weight," says Dr O'Reilly.
Dietitian Orla Walsh says that how you approach the situation depends on how much excess weight your child is carrying.
"If the child is a little bit overweight, what you need to do is hold their weight stable, ideally, until they grow into their weight. However, if they're very overweight and they'll never grow into their own weight, or they'll never be tall enough to pull off that weight in terms of BMI (body mass index), then you have to approach that weight a little bit differently," she says.
"I don't think it's ever helpful, often even with adults, to put someone on a diet because as soon as they are on a diet, it has a finish time. What you really need to do is go with sustainable choices. As soon as you bring in restriction, or hunger or say 'you can't have this' or 'you can't have that', you can do lifelong damage to that child's perception of food. You might help reduce their weight in the short term, but will you achieve sustained weight loss long term? Possibly not."
If a child's weight is problematic, it's something that the family, as a unit, can work together to address. Catherine Shortall, senior dietitian at Children's University Hospital, Temple Street, stresses that it's about the family deciding to make healthier choices together.
"It's not about one person being singled out and being told they can or can't eat this food: everybody should be involved in thinking about what changes can be made to their lifestyle in terms of activity or how frequently treat foods are coming in.
"Children shouldn't be put on a diet, they should be taught the skills to make healthier lifestyle changes and to help their self-confidence and their self-esteem as well," she says.
"Children can suffer from psychosocial impacts of being overweight: they may have low self-esteem, or low confidence and that can lead to depression and poor quality of life, and that can make it a little bit more difficult then to be outdoors, be active and play with friends."
Parents may be wary of tackling the issue of weight with children at all and given the rise in eating disorders, it's perceived as a very delicate subject. Social media, even among younger children, including boys and girls, is fuelling an obsession with body image. But it's all about how parents broach the discussion, and about putting any proposed lifestyle changes in a positive light. This means focusing on how eating well and exercising regularly can make you feel good, as opposed to concentrating on the weight aspect.
General lifestyle changes that parents can consider making include cutting down on screen time for children; making sure that they are getting their 60 minutes of physical activity a day; serving them child- and not adult-sized portions and keeping on eye on how much sugary, high fat, high salt foods are forming part of the family's intake.
It's also about role modelling - if children see parents sneaking a chocolate bar or a sugary drink in, all credibility may be lost.
Well-intentioned parents sometimes worry that their children are being house angels and street devils when it comes to food, and that they are being given less nutritional options outside of the home by grandparents for example, or at parties.
If that is the case, Dr O'Reilly suggests having a chat with that person. "Explain that you're trying to cut down and ask if they could offer fruit instead of sweets. People are very open and often they don't realise what they're doing because it's the norm."
When it comes to treats, mutinies are likely to occur in households where they are eliminated entirely and the recommendation is for children to have them in moderation, and that they enjoy them. According to Dr O'Reilly, going cold turkey on treats doesn't work for the majority of families, but incremental changes will.
"It might be going from having a treat a couple of times a day to having one every other day and that might take a couple of months to implement but it's doing something that is actually sustainable. It's small but it will actually have a big impact."
Dietitian Catherine Shortall suggests that designating a set day as 'treat' day can be helpful. "Banning them altogether is feeding into that idea that some foods are bad and some foods are good, and that makes it difficult for someone to make healthy choices for themselves," she says. "I think treats once or twice a week maximum would be ideal but that they're enjoyed and they're not deemed as 'bad' foods. If you're cutting out treats or being black and white about it, that's taking the control away from the child, and it may lead to a more disordered relationship with food in the long term."
Encouraging a healthy attitude
Make it a rule within the house that there are no fruit juices and only drink milk or water - but grown-ups are allowed tea and coffee.
Don't have a treat press. If people want treat food, they should have to go out and buy them.
Never comment on body image, in a negative or positive way. Focus on health instead.
Don't buy family packs. Get individually packed treats so that people can learn about portion sizes.
Consider how you, as a family, look at food. In today's society food has become the enemy, seen as something that makes you fat and and can make you sick, when in truth, food is something that keeps us healthy.
The message needs to be clear and needs to be simple: Fruit and veg are there to protect the body against illness; protein and dairy are there to feed the muscles and bones and carbohydrate feeds the brains and is fuel for activity.
- Orla Walsh