Thursday 24 August 2017

Children's health: Keeping weight in check

Due to the growing prevalence of overweight people in Ireland, it's never been more vital for parents to instill healthy and nutritious eating practices, as well as ensuring that kids get plenty of exercise, writes Karina Corbett

WITH Safefood having recently launched its 'Stop the Spread' campaign, diet and nutrition should be at the forefront of the nation's mind. New research has revealed that being overweight is a much more common problem than we might think, so the initiative is aimed at tackling this serious health epidemic.

Figures show that only 38pc of the population believe they're overweight, when in fact 61pc are carrying excess weight. 'Stop the Spread' is alerting people that being overweight is now wrongly deemed to be the norm and its call to action is urging adults to measure their waist to see if they are overweight.

Of course, prevention has always been the best medicine and adopting the right approach to diet is something that can be instilled in children from when they are very young.

According to Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at Safefood, kids' nutrition is crucial in order for them to be adequately nourished in terms of preventing deficiencies and to keep their weight status in check.

She says that one in five children entering junior infants now are either overweight or obese, so the issue has never been a more pressing one because these kids are more likely to be obese when they grow up.

Children need a healthy, balanced diet at all times to give them enough energy, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to grow and develop, explains Kellie O'Connor, nutritionist at Danone Ireland. And she says parents should lead by example because kids are hugely influenced by the eating habits of the adults in their lives.

"Involving children in the shopping for and the preparation and cooking of food from an early age can help to develop an interest in health, food and family meal times. Young children love to be helpful, so let them assist you in the kitchen – washing fruit and vegetables, stirring and mixing, washing up," explains O'Connor.

"It's also important to make time for regular family meals – at least twice a week – where everyone sits down together and eats the same food."

Foley-Nolan agrees. "Role modelling is the most critical thing. What happens in the home is the biggest influence really. Don't take the attitude of 'Do what I say, not what I do'."

Finding the balance

Unfortunately, junk food is everywhere these days and it can be difficult to completely avoid, so what's the best way to keep kids away from it? " Try not to draw attention to unhealthier foods by banning them outright as this will only make them more attractive to kids," advises O'Connor.

"But you should let them enjoy these foods occasionally, such as at parties or other social occasions. Treats can have a place in a balanced diet, along with healthier snacks such as fruit and probiotic yoghurts. So as long as there is a good balance, the odd treat won't do any harm."

Foley-Nolan stresses that treats should be treats as opposed to being part of a daily routine.

" No one is suggesting a life without ice cream but you have to be sensible about it. Be careful too with fruit juices as a lot of them have a very high sugar content. Check the brands to see which has the lowest and either dilute them or limit to one glass a day."

In these summer months O'Connor suggests focusing on more nutritious treats such as fruit juice-based ice lollies. You can also create homemade lollies by blending some fruit and yoghurt and freezing the mixture in pots or lolly moulds. Summer is also the perfect opportunity to introduce seasonal fruit such as berries, which most children love, so encourage them to try new fruit at this time of year.

Sticking to routine

During the summer season the temptation can be there to let the good food habits of the school year slip; however, O'Connor insists that it shouldn't be any harder now to ensure your child eats healthily.

" Try to keep to the family's regular mealtime routine, with three main meals and two or three snacks during the day. If your child is attending a summer camp, their lunchbox should be similar to what they have in their school lunch. And encourage all the family to drink plenty of water, especially in warm weather."

Foley-Nolan also advocates sitting down to meals together as a family and she suggests a little forethought and planning ahead will make all the difference. Again, getting the kids to help make their packed lunch the night before makes a difference too. "A big influencer seems to be including children in the preparation of food," she adds.

This is all well and good in theory but what does a parent do with a child who is a picky eater? "Most children will go through a phase of fussy eating at some point so it's important that you don't let it stress you too much," says O'Connor.

"It can take a few times of trying a new food before your child chooses to eat it, so the trick is to persevere, especially with younger children, but don't make an issue if they refuse foods. For example, if you serve broccoli and they don't eat it, just take it away and wait a few weeks before offering broccoli again. Praise them when they try new foods but don't worry if they don't immediately like everything they try."

Foley-Nolan believes fruit and vegetables should be served with every meal but she says it's worthwhile mixing up colours and shapes to make the dish more interesting for your little one. Variety on a plate will be a lot more alluring than a serving consisting of just carrots or peas.



Getting out and about

Needless to say, a healthy diet should be accompanied with a certain amount of physical exercise, and summer is the best time of the year for this. More time and better weather means lots of opportunities for outdoor activity.

For children and young people, being active helps reduce their risk of developing the likes of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer in later life, while increased levels of physical activity will help reduce body fat and maintain a healthy weight.

Being active is also something that can be fun for all the family and another area where grown-ups can lead by example.

Research shows that children whose parents are active are more than five times as likely to be active than those whose parents are not.

"Summer is the perfect time for all the family to get out there and enjoy life to the full, rain or shine," says O'Connor.



"If young children are engaged in enjoyable physical activity at an early age, they are more likely to become active teenagers and adults.

"Physical activity is not only enjoyable for toddlers and young children, it also helps them become stonger and healthier as they grow.

"The benefits of physical activity for toddlers and young children include learning fundamental physical skills - walking, climbing, balancing and catching; healthy grown and development of bones and muscles; improved emotional well-being through increased confidence and happiness; and enhanced social skills such as co-operation and teamwork," she adds.

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