Children and the battle of the bulge

17 February 2016

The stats are overwhelming. Over one in four children under the age of 18 are overweight or even obese.

Obesity in children has been on the rise during the last two decades and now experts are saying that this current generation of overweight children are at risk for serious health consequences that may put them six feet under before their parents.

The long term health risks for overweight children

It’s estimated that 40% of obese 7-year olds and 70% of obese adolescents become obese adults. Obese kids are also more likely to suffer physical and psychological problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, back and knee problems, low self-esteem and depression.

Childhood weight problems have long-term implications for health in adulthood. It’s well documented that obesity increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory illness and certain cancers.

Excess weight also bears consequences for psychological, emotional and social well-being. For teenagers in particular, being overweight causes stress, lowers their self-esteem and affects their relationships with peers. One study of 5,746 Canadian adolescents found that overweight teens were more likely to be bullies or victims of bullying.

Managing a child's weight on the homefront

The best thing a parent can do is lead by example and model good eating habits and a positive attitude towards physical activity. Avoid fad diets yourself and don’t complain about your own weight, or anyone else’s, in front of your kids. Instead of lecturing on the evils of French fries and chocolate bars, stock the house with nutritious foods like fruit, vegetables, low fat dairy products and whole grains. Keep healthy snacks in a place where kids can easily see and access them – front and center in the fridge and cupboards.

A note of caution: Don’t put your child on a “diet”. Low calorie diets can rob growing children of the energy and nutrients they need to grow and stay active. Restricting food and nutrient intake for an extended period of time can stunt growth. Crash diets followed over a long period can also delay breast development in females and muscle growth in males. Dieting can also make kids feel tired, moody and anxious. And worse, it can cause low self-esteem since self-esteem is defined, in part, by successes and failures.

Strategies for parents packing lunch

Parents are often so worried as to whether their child will eat their lunch, they overpack the quantity and selection of food. This actually doesn’t help an overweight child. Kids tend to fixate on eating the snacks and treats, but leave the sandwich or vegetables as a last choice. Pack sparingly so kids will eat every bite.

Remember that a meal is three food groups so pack three components in every lunch: grains (wraps, bread, crackers, pasta, whole grain muffin), meat and alternatives (lean meat, chicken, tuna, cheese, egg), and fruit and vegetables.

Children are drinking more and more sweetened juice, soda and milk beverages with so much added sugar they're more like a can of Coke.

Rather than these sugary drinks, fill a reusable water bottle with pure water for your kids to drink. Liquid calories don’t fill us up and it's more valuable to pack an apple, grapes, blueberries or orange slices instead of fruit juice to add fiber to your child’s diet. Younger children in particular need snacks because their stomachs are smaller and hold less food at one time. Pack snacks for recess to prevent kids becoming too hungry at lunch.

However, make a rule for how often you’ll pack cookies, gummy bears, chewy chocolate chip granola bars, chips or some other treat. Kids need to understand these are not everyday foods, but rather a treat. Substitute these foods with healthier snacks like a snack-size back of air-popped popcorn.