Thursday 22 March 2018

What should I do if my child is overweight?

Parents who wish to help their obese children often need to tackle their own weight issues first, writes Siobhan O'Neill-White

Siobhan O'Neill-White

Sandra Byrne has seen the impact her relationship with her weight has had on her 11-year-old daughter, Leah.

The first thing she noticed was that Leah looked pale, withdrawn and off her food.

Then she spotted scribbles on Leah's schoolbag; something had been written and then crossed out.

It was time for further investigation and soon Sandra found the answers in her daughter's school copybook.

Leah was being picked on about her weight and was being called nasty, hurtful names.

Sandra confronted her daughter and Leah admitted it. She had kept quiet because Sandra gets so upset about her own weight.

Leah did not want to upset her by telling her that children at school had dubbed her 'fat'.

So, had she, as a mother, given her child a complex about her weight which had led to Leah's bullying? And what could she do about it?

Worryingly, as it turned out, it seemed there was plenty of evidence that how a parent perceives weight and obesity can have a very direct impact on how children cope with similar issues.

Personal trainer Karl Henry, who features on RTE's Operation Transformation, believes the best way to tackle child obesity is through family activities.

"I recommend families incorporate as much movement into their day as possible," he says.

"If they are going to the shops, leave the car at home and take the kids on their bikes or scooters or if they have to drive, park a good distance from the shop to include a walk and take stairs wherever possible, instead of a lift."

Karl suggests getting the child involved in activities they like. "If parents are worried about a child's weight, sports are a great way to get them active. Team sports at or after school are easy to get involved with.

"However, if the child is not interested in sports there are other great activities they can do, such as surfing. It's a fun activity and something the whole family can do together. Hill walking and cycling are other great family activities.

"The main thing is not to be afraid to try something new."

Karl says that after incorporating regular exercise into daily family life, soon the child can graduate to more strenuous exercises, such as swimming.

As well as increasing exercise, small changes in diet can make a real difference too. "Smaller plates and smaller portions are easy changes to make. It is also a good idea to get the children involved in shopping for and cooking dinner.

"Take them to the supermarket and let them help pick out food. When they have a say, they are more likely to try new things and this is a great way for them to learn about different types of food."

Noeleen Whelan is mum to 10-year-old Fran and has been worried about his weight for a long time.

"Fran was heavy from the time he was a baby. He did not walk until he was two years old and never really crawled because he was quite heavy."

When Fran started school, Noeleen hoped the weight would come off if he was involved in activities and sports.

She recalls: "At school he played football and tried swimming but it was not working. He could not lift himself out of the swimming pool so he did not want to go swimming."

Due to the extra weight he was carrying, Fran was not sleeping well, had asthma and had to wear elasticated trousers.

Noeleen adds: "He could not wear jeans and generally he was not very active. I had started to lose weight myself and was getting more active and this was something I was concerned about. I tried talking to him but nothing worked."

The change came when Noeleen took Fran to the family GP with his asthma.

"It was our GP who recommended we see a paediatrician about Fran's diet. I think when the doctor said it to us, we knew we had to do something."

The paediatrician referred Fran to a dietician in summer 2010 and a lot has changed since. "The main problems we discovered were Fran was eating between meals and his portions were too big.

"For example, we used to go to McDonalds once a week and Fran would have a regular meal with milkshake and sometimes an ice-cream afterwards.

"Now if we go, which is not as often, he will have a child's meal with soft drink or water and only occasionally, ice-cream afterwards. He is still allowed treats but in moderation."

As well as cutting down on fast food, Noeleen gives Fran smaller portions and once everyone is finished dinner, the food is cleared so Fran cannot pick at other people's plates at the table.

Noeleen is thrilled with the changes in Fran since he saw the dietician.

'He is happier and more confident. He has lost weight and looks great. Fran sleeps better, his asthma is less troublesome and he is in better form.

"When playing football he gets really involved and chases the ball, whereas a year ago, he would have waited for the ball to come to him. He has resumed swimming and has no trouble lifting himself out of the pool."

Noeleen says they were treated very well and had a positive experience with the GP, dietician and paediatrician, who helped Fran change his ways.

Dr Eddie Murphy, principal clinical psychologist, who works with the HSE, says looking at the whole family reveals a lot about the child.

"Individual relationships with food are multi-causal, it is never just down to one thing.

"Family history, self-esteem, genetics can all be factors. Where there is a concern, Public Health Nurses or GPs are a good place to start and there is a good support system in place to help families."

Irish Independent

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