A crisis of consciousness – Are we making our children fat?

With October focusing on national obesity and nutrition, it is a sobering statistic to hear that currently there are 43 million children worldwide under the age of five who are already overweight or obese. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa says a staggering 35 million of these live in developing countries such as South Africa.

On the flip side, there are children as young as seven or eight who are worried that they are not thin enough, and want to diet.

In an article in the latest Fedhealthy magazine, it states that an Ofsted study conducted in 2010 revealed that for a third of 10 year-old girls, and 22% of boys, their main concern is how their bodies look. More recent statistics out of the UK show that nearly 200 children aged five to nine have been hospitalised for severe anorexia.

As responsible parents what is the answer? How do we find the middle ground for our children, when we can’t seem to find it as adults? South Africa is one of the heaviest countries globally – two out of three South Africans are considered obese, with 58% of our population admitting they get little to no exercise. “Fat has become the boogieman of our time,” shares British Columbia based eating disorder counsellor Sandra Friedman. Friedman is the author of When Girls Feel Fat: Helping Girls Through Adolescence. An SA National Health and Nutrition survey released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) last month supports these shocking findings and further shows that the incidence of those that are overweight or obese is significantly higher in women than in men, as well as amongst girls rather than boys. In fact the highest prevalence of obesity amongst children was in the two to five age group.

Nutrition expert and creator of the Scoop to Lose programme, Melissa Kelly, explains that childhood obesity has become a serious health issue worldwide. “Studies show that one in four children under the age of 18 is at risk of being overweight, and 15% are already obese.” These children are at risk of bone and joint problems, sleep apnoea, asthma as well as social and psychological problems.

There are several potential causes of childhood obesity including inactivity, diet and family dynamics being some key influencing factors. Research shows that family dynamics have a significant impact on eating practices, including the child’s attitude towards food and ability to know when they are full. Children look to parents as role models, says Dr Jorg Spieldenner, Nestlé head of department for public health nutrition. And, more often than not, children develop their eating habits by observing their mothers. Kelly agrees saying, “Mealtime can be about trusting or controlling, providing or neglecting, accepting or rejecting. Eating can be joyful, full of zest and vitality, or it can be fearful, bounded by control and avoidance.” Mealtimes should be a positive experience. “Children who are instructed to clean their plates are less sensitive to physiological clues for satiety and eventually lose the ability to know when they are full.” Equally, a restrictive approach towards food, or forcing certain fruits and vegetables on a child who doesn’t like them, can result in a lower intake of the healthy foods. “These children are also more likely to fixate on the forbidden foods such as sweets, chips and chocolates and will consume more of them when they get the chance.”

The situation is often exacerbated at school. A study conducted by Nestlé at various primary schools showed that the majority of children are consuming fizzy, fattening, fun and frivolous food at school. Not good news when you consider that they spend a big portion of their day there and that nutrient deficiencies can lead to health problems later in life. Toasted sandwiches were the best-sellers (55%) with hot dogs (55%,) followed by pies (40%); fizzy drinks (75%) and iced tea (55%); chips (75%) and sweets (55%).

Fedhealth says that this does not mean that all schools are getting it wrong as the survey was relatively small, but with nearly a quarter of parents not sending their children to school with a packed lunchbox every day, the pressure is on schools to start providing quality, healthy and nutritious food options. And for the majority of mothers sending their children to school every day with a packed lunch, one way to get the balance right is to get children involved in both the purchasing of lunchbox items, and the making of school lunches. “I would suggest that kids are involved in packing their lunch no matter what the age,” says Amy Goldsmith, registered dietician and owner of Kindred Nutrition. Goldsmith believes that by grade 3, children should be able to handle their own lunches. She suggests discussing the various food groups with young children, and chatting to them about how they want to get the fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein they need each day. By getting them involved in the process, they will quickly learn which healthy foods they like. “If you don’t have that conversation with kids and ask them what they like, they’re at more risk of ditching it,” she added. Kelly concurs.

She adds that it’s also important to set aside time for family meals at the dinner table as often as possible. “Parents need to take responsibility and be in charge of the ‘what, when and where’ of mealtimes. Children need to be allowed the freedom to choose from the options provided by their parents.”

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Compiled on behalf of Fedhealth by Cathy Findley Public Relations