Figures show that worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980. In Ireland, 60% of men, and 50% of women, are overweight or obese. Set against this backdrop, it is even more worrying that the levels of childhood overweight and obesity are also exploding. We now know that 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 5 girls aged 4-5 are overweight or obese –this means that in every primary school on the island of Ireland, almost a quarter of the children in junior infants are already carrying excess weight!
The problem escalates during childhood, and by the age of 9, 1 in 20 boys are obese. The figures for girls are even more concerning, and at only 9 years of age almost 1 in 10 girls are found to be obese.
“Overweight” in children is defined as a Body mass index or “BMI” ≥ the 91st percentile relative to their peers of a similar age. “Obesity” is defined as a BMI ≥ the 98th centile.
Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. In addition to saving up problems for the future though, childhood obesity impacts on the here-and-now also. We are now seeing many “adult” diseases in childhood; high blood pressure is now a medical problem in childhood; breathing problems and bone and joint wear and tear is now also a medical problem of childhood. The National Children’s Food Survey in 2011 reported that for the first time in history many of the children of today will live, and are living, shorter and poorer quality lives, than their parents, due to these greater levels of ill-health.
But the consequences are not only physical. Overweight children rarely admit their weight causes them problems socially, however they can be teased in school, fare poorly at sport, feel embarrassed when changing, under perform both academically & socially, and have low self-esteem. We know that obese children are ranked by their peers, and in these “rankings” they fare lower than children with any other physical or mental handicap.
The solution is not easy. Research has shown that parents of overweight children systematically underestimate their children’s weight. In the “Growing Up in Ireland Report” on Overweight and Obesity among 9-year olds, 54% of parents of overweight children and 20% of parents of obese children reported that they were “about the right weight for their height”.
If the parents can’t see it who will? Your GP? Probably not. GPs are slow to initiate a conversation around a child’s weight. There are planned weight checks at age 2 and 5 for kids but outside of that a lot of GP’s will not initiate the conversation. If your GP does not start this conversation, you should, if you have concerns.
If you think your child has a problem here are a few tips. When you talk to them, use terms such as leaner, healthier, fitter and a “better weight”; avoid words like slim, thin, ideal weight, normal weight, obese, overweight, heavier, larger, or cuddly. Weight should be discussed in positive terms, and it is important to keep the focus on health.
From the child’s perspective, though they may not appreciate it, they are in the enviable position (unlike “fully grown” adults) of being able to reach a healthy weight by simply just holding their weight steady for a period of time, and this message is key!
“Safefood.eu” is a website that offers great advice- “They’re children, they should be given child-sized portions. Use plates and cutlery that match their size, not yours”! Treat foods should only be given occasionally, not every-day – but banning them altogether can make them more appealing. Sugary drinks can be reduced gradually by adding plenty of water to cordials and squashes. You should of course aim for 60 minutes of exercise (both structured and unstructured) per day. In addition, kids should finish eating 2 or 3 hours before bedtime.
Returning to a healthy weight will be a slow process, probably requiring some “tough love”. A lot of this, of course, is easier said than done, however in the long run, it’s much kinder to say “no” – so don’t be afraid to say it!