Obesity among children is on the increase, triggering a whole range of health problems. But we also know what a sensitive subject weight can be. Could even mentioning a straining waistband on your child’s school trousers trigger hurt feelings, a quest to reach size zero, or even a lifelong eating disorder? Little wonder, then, that many of us just keep quiet and hope the problem sorts itself out.
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The difficulties for parents
“Parents are reluctant to broach the subject for fear of making it an issue,” agrees child obesity expert Dr Paul Chadwick, a clinical and health psychologist and Clinical Director at MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it!) – a new national initiative to combat child weight problems. “But it already is an issue.”
According to the most recent studies almost a third (31%) of all children between the ages of two and 10 are overweight or obese. As they grow, so does the issue - 35% of 11-15 year olds are classed as overweight or obese. Government experts predict that if the trend continues, by 2050 more than half of boys and 70 per cent of girls could be in the overweight or obese category.
How to help overweight children
Young people are increasingly suffering from serious illnesses and conditions related to obesity – including asthma, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, gallstones and high blood pressure. More than half of obese children become obese adults. The condition is responsible for 9,000 premature deaths each year in England, and threatens to reduce life expectancy by an average of nine years.
Its not just physical health that’s affected. “Being obese can have a serious impact on children’s self-esteem and cause depression and social isolation – as well as triggering early puberty,” says the organisation. But the problem won’t go away by itself. “You wouldn't expect your child to learn how to read without being taught,” says Dr Chadwick. “Learning how to eat healthily is also a skill and needs teaching. Most overweight children do not lose weight without adult support.”
Helpful steps to take
Step 1: Act early. Experts agree that the earlier you can make changes to your child’s diet and lifestyle, the better chance of success you have.Don’t despair if you’re the parent of an overweight teenager. “It’s actually easier to talk to teenagers about their weight than younger children,” says Dr Chadwick. “By the time they reach teenage years, they are well aware of their weight status and are often willing to work with you.
Step 2: Check that your child really is overweight. You can calculate your child's Body Mass Index BMI (comparing their weight to their height). If they are within healthy weight range for their age and height, that’s great. But it’s still a good idea to adopt healthy practices for the family as a whole – to keep you all in good health.
Step 3: Don’t panic. “Many parents of bigger children don’t realise that their child is above the healthy weight range for their height and age,” says MEND experts. “Even if they do, it’s common for those extra pounds to be put down to ‘puppy fat’ that will disappear as their child grows older. Dr Chadwick adds: “Evidence suggests that overweight parents, or parents of overweight children, are less accurate in identifying whether their children are obese or overweight. The younger the child, the more pronounced the errors in perception are. By the time the child is an obese teen it’s probably a lot more obvious.”
Step 4: Talk about it. The easiest way to make something into a big issue is to have a 'big talk' about it, says Paul.
How to help your child eat more healthily
- Avoid letting them snack mindlessly while watching TV or playing on the computer
- Establish a regular meal and snack pattern – ideally sitting down together as a family – rather than allowing constant grazing. This trains children to recognise feelings of hunger and fullness
- Encourage your child to tune into their tum – to eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full
- Cut down on and gradually eliminate sweetened soft drinks. Scientists have found a direct link between these and weight gain. Switch to diluted squash (use fizzy water if they crave bubbles) or water
- Eat a healthy breakfast. Studies show obese children are more likely to skip breakfast then snack on high calorie, high fat foods to quell hunger pangs
- Limit meals out and takeaways. A quarter of families now eat out at least once a week. But studies of popular restaurant chains show that none come even close to meeting the Government’s minimum standards laid down for school meals
- Don’t supersize. It’s too easy to upgrade to larger popcorn, fries and drinks for only a few pence more. But studies suggest that larger portions mean we automatically eat more, which can then become a habit
- Never insist on a clean plate or force your child to eat more when they’ve had enough. Accept when they are full. It’s a skill we often lose with age!
- Get active as a family - include a brisk scoot to and from school, 15 minutes playing in the garden or a walk in the local park or woods
- Limit screen time and encourage them to plan offline activities
- Involve kids in the cooking and chopping process to get them taking more of an interest
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at email@example.com or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.