The growing epidemic of obese children is as much a disease as any other medical condition. This is a global phenomenon and South Africa is experiencing the same problem with overweight and obese children as other developing countries. The recent rise in childhood obesity can be attributed to more South Africans now living an urban lifestyle – high calorie and fatty foods combined with a sedentary lifestyle.
Before the age of 4 years, some children may be ‘plump’ and this does not concern many parents. This is sometimes referred to as baby fat but the reality is that an obese toddler is already a sign of a potential problem.
Overweight Babies and Toddlers
In the first two years of life, feeding on demand is the norm and this may contribute to a greater intake of calories than is needed for the baby’s energy needs. Ultimately this contributes to weight gain. However this should not be seen as a problem if the infant has not started walking as yet.
Restricting food intake is also not the answer as the baby’s nutritional demands and curiosity about new foods and tastes often leads them to eat foods that may contribute to the weight gain. Breastfeeding is another contributing factor as many mothers breastfeed until the age of 2 years or beyond and tend to feed on demand.
By the time the child is walking and exploring their environment, this weight should be lost. If a toddler is obese, then parents should take note of the potential problem and act upon it immediately. Once again, it is not about restricting food. The focus should be on proper nutrition coupled with more physical activity. Chances are that an obese toddler may end up being an obese child or adolescent.
Obese Children and Teens
While many parents ignore obesity in the early years of life, an obese child (over the age of 4 years) should raise the red flag for caregivers. At times being moderately overweight could be attributed to medical conditions like hypothyroidism but if these conditions are excluded, then the problem lies with incorrect eating habits and/or a lack of activity.
Parents have to take responsibility for their children’s behaviour – both in terms of diet and exercise. Unfortunately, many parents encourage incorrect eating habits in their children either by their own poor diet, preparing the ‘wrong’ foods or giving their children ‘junk food’ as a means of compensating for a lack of attention.
Apart from the health risks, obese children are unable to partake in the same physical activities as other kids and experience difficulty with social interaction. This ultimately affects the child’s personality and even their academic performance as they are reluctant to attend school.
If left uncorrected, the problem compounds and ultimately leads to obesity in the teen years. At this stage in life, obesity can be extremely detrimental for your child’s emotional welfare. As a teen, your child becomes more aware about their body and may develop a host of psychosocial problems which could have devastating results.
Treating Childhood Obesity
The first step to treating childhood obesity is correcting the parent’s attitude towards weight management problems. Many parents tend to pacify their children by telling them that they will ‘outgrow the fat’. This is a dangerous practice as your child does not learn to take responsibility for their problem.
Secondly parents have to educate themselves about good nutrition and practice proper eating habits themselves. Children learn by watching the adults around them and if parents do not eat a healthy diet, a child will not correct their eating habits. If parents are aware about proper nutrition, they can ultimately teach their children how to eat healthy.
Another growing problem is that some parents are ‘fat feeders’. They shower their children with junk food as a means of placating them, either for a lack of attention or other social problems existing within the environment. This just breeds a generation of ‘comfort eaters’ who believe that overindulging in junk food will make them feel better.
Physical activity is an essential part of weight management. Apart from partaking in sports, children should be encouraged to play and be active. Long hours in front of the television, computer use and video games play a big part in childhood obesity. While these activities should not be banned, it should be regulated by the parents. Children are only interested in satisfying themselves with a tool that is at their disposal. If parents do not encourage physical activity or provide the facilities, children will opt for more sedentary past times.
Allowing your child to remain overweight or obese in childhood determines their health status in adulthood. The rising incidence of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, especially in young adults, can often be linked to a poor knowledge about food and exercise from childhood. Proper eating and healthy living should be taught in childhood and it is the responsibility of parents to educate themselves first and then their children.