Summer is the perfect time to get everyone moving more and eating better
Childhood obesity is a big problem. A recent US study published in Paediatrics which looked at data from over 18,000 children concluded that the rate of childhood obesity was higher, it occurred at younger ages and was more severe now than it had been 12 years previously.
Separate research shows that families who develop unhealthy habits such as having lots of unhealthy snacks, allowing unlimited screentime or rewarding children with snacks or screentime were associated with higher consumption by children, of savoury/sweet snacks, fizzy drinks and so on. In contrast, where families had more fruit and vegetables at home, and parents were physically active with their children, it was associated with much healthier food choices by children.
I know this makes intuitive sense, but when your intuition gets backed up by research it may be time to act. An article this year from an Italian group of researchers highlights how important prevention is in limiting childhood obesity. Those authors conclude that prevention must address dietary patterns, eating habits, portion size, and increase the frequency of family mealtimes. Importantly they also point out that increased physical activity and reducing the amount of sedentary behaviour (less time sitting or lying around on screens) is also key.
It is true that children are moving significantly less than they ever did. Estimates suggest that here in Ireland, only about one in five boys, and about one in eight girls are doing the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended amount of activity of one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day.
Summer is a great time to be addressing some of the unhealthier habits that may have developed in your family. The spell of great weather we have had has hopefully spurred you and your children to be out and more active. So many fruits and vegetables are in season that it may be more tempting to prepare or cook them.
The difficulty with changing habits is that sometimes we can try to do too much at one time. It is more effective to pick a single habit and work on it, than trying to change multiple habits at the same time. There are about four weeks left in the summer. So, have a look at these four healthier habits and give each one a go for a week. If it works for your family then stick with it and try another one.
1. Increase the number of steps you take every day
Most phones will record your steps, and lots of people have some kind of smartwatch or fitbit that can help to track this. Be realistic in setting your target. For example, if you only do 2,000 steps on average now, think about upping that to 2,500 rather than aiming for 10,000. We aren’t searching for perfection, just better. Setting up daily targets for the whole family to contribute to might be fun, or have some competition, for example, for the maximum numbers of steps in a week.
2. Have more family meals together
When children eat with their parents, they tend to develop better habits than when they just eat with other children, since the opportunity for role-modelling by parents increases. Parents and children are also more likely to eat the same foods, rather than children perhaps being offered more convenient (but less healthy) foods. Assuming you are a typical family you have 21 meals in a week. How many of those do you all sit down to together? Can you increase this by three or four meals for this coming week?
3. Play with your children
Especially when your children are younger, it will be more fun for them when you get involved in their play, but play can happen at any age. By playing with them, you can also make the play more active. You may remember games you played such as skipping or hopscotch. Think back to your childhood. I can recall playing “kerbies”, which while nominally a game of skill to bounce a ball off the opposite kerb, actually involved running around a lot to collect the ball from many bad throws. Building a habit of playing with your children may discourage screen-based games and encourage movement.
4. Eat slower
When we eat slower, we give our bodies time to register the amount of food we have eaten, increasing the likelihood that we will get a “fullness” signal to stop eating. One of the best suggestions I heard is to put your fork down between each mouthful. This encourages you to chew more and makes the whole meal a more mindful experience. If this is combined with more family meals, then taking the opportunity to talk and listen will also slow you down.
Trying these habits won’t necessarily address the wider issue of childhood obesity with its many causes, as other social/policy factors also come into play (like sugar taxes and such), but they may just make your family a healthier, happier place to be.