Childhood Obesity- A Growing Menace

All children need to gain weight as they grow older, but gaining extra pounds — more than what's needed to support their growth and development — can in fact lead to childhood obesity. Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that occurs when a child is at least 20% well above the normal weight for his or her age and height.

The danger of the increased incidence of obesity among children is shockingly high, with one out of every three to four children in the US being reported as overweight or obese. The American Obesity Association Report shows that around 15% of teenagers and children in the US are obese and the number is only going to escalate in the coming years. The reasons are quite evidently an increase in the consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, which also happen to have high levels of sugar and saturated fats, and a reduced physical activity level.

The health risk of obesity in children tends to only increase with age and usually gets carried into adulthood. While the short-term implications include suffering from depression, low self-esteem, and at times even social isolation, the long-term consequences anticipated are hormonal disturbances, increased risk to lifestyle disorders like hypertension and diabetes and premature ageing. In adults, the tool used to assess one’s weight status is the body mass index, or BMI. However, the BMI alone is not an appropriate measure for children. A child’s BMI percentile chart has to be used alongside charts that take into account the child’s rate of growth, sex, and age - and is best interpreted with the help of your physician or a qualified dietician.

The Diet strategy-
Childhood obesity needs a multidisciplinary approach.
  • One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in the case of a child is to improve the diet and exercise levels of the entire family, and not only the child’s.
  • Another important aspect to be borne in mind while working out a healthy regime for children is not to blindly restrict calories in a child's diet, as this could adversely affect the child's growth and development and also be psychologically stressful. Instead, it would be advisable if we could just focus on balanced diets, healthy eating habits, and active lifestyle patterns, with moderate caloric restriction (by cutting down on the unhealthy fat intake) without depriving them of nutrients.
Breakfast forms an integral part of the battle against childhood obesity. However, this is one meal that is overlooked owing to time constraints and the child’s tendency to skip eating anything while running to catch the bus. Insistence from parents to ensure that the child does not leave empty stomach helps. An ideal breakfast must have a good source of carbs and proteins and can typically be worked around a glass of milk with cereals of their choice, cheese sandwich, boiled eggs, and fruit juice.
  • Gradually adopt a diet that should contain 50-60% of calories derived from complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), 20-30% calories from lean proteins (egg whites, fish, and whole pulses), and the diet should not contain anything more than 20% of calories from healthy fats (nuts). By doing so, we would be able to reduce the calorie intake by at least 200–300 cal/day and thereby effectively reduce the weight by 1.5 to 2 kg per month (approximately) - a gradual and healthy rate of weight loss.
  • Restriction on simple sugars (sweets and candies), fried snacks, junk foods, aerated soft drinks, and red meats to once in a fortnight is essential. Try sneaking in vegetables and fruits through soups, juices, shakes, dips, and salads.
  • Snacking is quite a predictable trend in any child’s diet, and as parents, there is no need to stop them from indulging in snacks. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that healthy snacking options are abundant in the kitchen cabinet. If the refrigerator is stocked with chocolates and closets with wafers and cookies, we cannot possibly expect them to skip these foods and opt for carrot sticks or roasted nuts. It would thus be wise to make sure that the healthy snacking choices such as fresh fruits, almonds & peanuts, sprouts, yoghurt, cottage cheese, flavored soy milk, corn (which can be steamed or roasted), wheat biscuits, cereal bars, fruit juices, etc. are kept handy.
  • Getting adequate amounts of calcium is important. Although the easiest route to giving kids the calcium they need might be pouring a glass of milk or serving up a cup of curd or grilled cheese sandwich, not every child can, or will, consume the common dairy delights. Calcium can then be supplemented by adding dark leafy vegetables, legumes like chick peas, nuts (almonds), soybean, sesame seeds and whole grains in their diets.
  • Drinking a lot of (10-12 glasses) of water, watery soups, vegetable broths, and vegetable juices (prefer whole fruits over fruit juices) helps. These juices not only supply the child with antioxidants, vital nutrients, and fiber but also provide satiety, and thus help in controlling compulsive overeating.
  • Encourage physical activity in the form of active group games and games that can be played life-long, e.g., tennis, basket ball, or swimming.
  • Regulated television viewing, computer/video games (not more than 30 minutes to an hour per day) can go a long way in promoting good health.
  • Use your imagination to create innovative recipes with greens, whole grains, and beans and involve family in shopping and cooking. It is sure a challenge to create a winner healthy and taste-bud-friendly recipe amidst constant peer pressure and attractive junk food commercials, but keep trying. Trust me; it is surely worth the effort.
Adopt a practical healthy menu at home. Don’t feel guilty in imposing limits and restrictions, and avoid the temptation to use food as reward or punishment. Try to get even yourself involved in regular physical activity and make meal times fun-filled family times (not power game or battlefield). And be assured that this way, the pleasure of being the parent of a healthy and confident child would be yours.
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