Make tackling childhood obesity a family affair
Parents must lead by example and show their children that healthy food and exercise are an essential part of life, writes David Coleman
We know from research that most overweight children will go on to remain overweight adults, especially if one or more of their parents is overweight. There is still further research that demonstrates that the majority of mothers of overweight or obese children think that their children's weight is fine for their age. Which means that they are less likely to do anything to help their child lose weight.
Sometimes we can be reluctant to think about changing aspects of our children's diet or exercise because we recognise that we might have to lead by example! However, rather than seeing this as an impediment, we can think of it as a really positive challenge. Making a healthier lifestyle a family challenge can mean lots more support for each other.
The basic causes behind childhood obesity are not that complex. Essentially, overweight and obesity are caused, over time, by a child taking in an excess of calories from foodstuff that is not used up by the body. There is an energy imbalance.
Some of the other factors that will influence a child's energy balance include their behaviour (eg, whether a child eats breakfast or not), the environment (eg, the increased availability of high-fat foods) and genetic factors. Another difficulty is that parents who may realise that there is a problem feel overwhelmed by it and think the challenge is too great to tackle.
So what can parents do?
If your habit is to serve sugary drinks to your children then this is a really simple place to begin changing. You can start by just adding more water to squashes and cordials to let your children get used to a less sugary taste.
Perhaps you could aim to limit sugary drinks to the weekends with a view to eventually replacing them with water altogether. If you are starting out with your family, then just give them water from the outset.
Similarly, we all know that exercise is important, not just for weight control, but for overall health too. Sedentary activities like watching TV, surfing the internet and computer gaming now match the amount of time children spend, on average, in physical activity.
From an early age we can include our children in walks and going to playgrounds. As they get older we can encourage participation in sports. You can check out www.getirelandactive.ie for lots more great ideas that are available in your area.
Activities that the whole family are engaged in are not only good for increasing exercise, but will also give your family shared memories and interests that will strengthen your sense of togetherness.
Reducing children's screen-time will also help with their activity levels. There is little point in being too draconian and bringing in radical new rules banning screens, but gradual reductions that limit TV or gaming time by 30 minutes a day, for example, give 30 extra minutes that could be spent outside, moving.
Of equal interest to me are the factors involved in how much and where children eat. We parents still regularly misjudge the portion sizes that children need. So when in doubt give your child less and let them ask for a second helping if they are not full.
If you use plates and cutlery that match their size, not yours, it will give you a better indication of how much food to start with.
The recession has also increased the numbers of "cheap" or "free" offers that mean we tend to buy more of a food because we perceive value even if we don't actually need that extra food.
It can be harder to change your shopping habits if the children are in tow. So, if you can, leave them behind to avoid the "pester-power". If you have to bring them then make sure they have eaten and had fresh air before you go. They are less likely to be giddy and demanding if they aren't hungry or having a version of cabin fever.
By cooking more of our own food, we can not only learn for ourselves, but teach our children too, about healthy-sized portions that reflect the recommended serving guides.
Most of us still expect and even insist that our children clear their plates despite the fact that they are the best judges of when they are full. Just under half of us make this situation even worse by rewarding our children for eating all of their dinner, irrespective of the portion size.
Treats need to remain exactly that – treats. That is, something that is occasional and small rather than a regular part of the family diet. Rewards of more of your individual time and attention are always going to be better for children than food rewards.
Not only is "what" children eat important, but "where" they eat is important too. American research shows increasing trends to eat out of home, at fast food restaurants. Fast food restaurants, other food outlets and even the popcorn at cinemas are all, also, experiencing a super-sizing trend in recent years. Even when we eat at home, however, we know that about half of all children don't eat with their parents or any adult role-model. This is very significant in two respects.
Firstly, children don't get any role-modelling from adults about how to eat. They don't see, for example, how much food to include in a "mouthful", or how much to chew a food to make it easily digestible. Now perhaps the instinctive habits they will develop will be ideal but, unless we eat with our children, there is no opportunity to moderate those by other, adult, examples.
The second thing that children miss out on, when they don't eat with adults, is the social aspect of food and eating. Eating, while chatting, laughing and interacting, means that we typically eat slower and more thoughtfully than when we are just eating to consume food.
It also builds stronger family connections and relationships, increasing communication within the family.
Don't panic if you are working full time and family meals are just impossible during the week. Eating together at the weekend, or even one night a week, is better than never eating with your children.
As a final point, another issue with "where" children eat relates to eating in front of the TV. According to research, about one child out of every five eats in front of the TV. Eating when distracted often means we don't recognise the signs that we are full and so continue to eat beyond what we need.
Bearing in mind the influence that we parents have, we must be the leaders in our family's habits about eating, drinking and exercise. If we want to keep our children healthy, and help them avoid overweight and obesity, we need to make the changes.