From horrifying stats that suggest half of us will be clinically obese within 20 years, to research that shows one third of all UK children are already overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, every week seems to throw up another scare story about our national weight problem.
[Healthy: Kids prefer stickers to crisps]
And the stark facts don’t lie: the number of overweight or obese children is increasing year-on-year in Britain. There are currently one million obese children under the age of 16.
“Puppy fat”, you say? But the truth is as many as 70 per cent of those kids will grow up to become obese adults.
If we continue as we are, 90 per cent of today’s children could be overweight or obese by 2050.
As leading UK obesity prevention organisation MEND points out, the consequences for our health – and our children’s – will be grave: “Children and adults who are above a healthy weight are much more likely to develop chronic diseases.”
These include heart and blood disease, some cancers, osteoarthritis, fatty liver, Type 2 diabetes, infertility, asthma and high blood pressure – which can lead to stroke.
Meanwhile, experts suggest that overweight children will tend to have poorer body image, leaving them susceptible to eating disorders in later life.
The reason for the increase in obesity is complex, but societal changes in the way we eat, what we eat and how active we are conspire to produce the problem. It doesn’t help that there is confusing information out there about what foods are healthy and what aren’t – such as so-called “low fat” products, which can be high in sugar.
So how can you act now to prevent obesity in your children before it happens? For Childhood Obesity Week (July 2-8) we bring you our top ten tips to keeping your kids on the straight and narrow:
The modern trend for snacking on the go has partly contributed to our inability to fathom when we are genuinely hungry – and adds to the calories we intake every day. Keep regular, proper mealtimes for the family – including breakfast. Even better, aim to eat seated around a table. It is good to avoid distractions during a meal, so that food is eaten consciously. As the Department of Health’s Change4Life programme notes: “Growing bodies respond better to routine.”
Swap the snacks
Swap sugary snacks and drinks to ones that are lower in sugar. It is best to keep sugary foods to mealtimes (e.g breakfast cereals) than to eat them as snacks. So switch sugar soft drinks for water, skimmed milk or well-diluted pure fruit juice, swap sugary snacks such as cakes and biscuits for fresh fruit, a chunk of cheese or bread-based options such as a scone or currant bun. Buy reduced sugar jams and choose canned fruit in juice rather than syrup.
Check the labels
Check the labels of seemingly healthy ‘low fat’ options for the sugar content. Look for the ‘carbohydrates (of which sugars) figure - ‘high’ sugars is more than 15g of total sugars per 100g; ‘low’ is 5g of total sugars per 100g. Added sugars will be high up in the ingredients list, too. Other terms include sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, corn syrup and honey.
Serve up ‘me-size’ meals
Resist the urge to dole out extra portions on your kids’ plates – or to insist they finish everything in front of them. It’s vital to make sure children get the right amount for their age. Respect your child’s appetite – their bodies know how much they need.
Follow the ‘five a day’ rule
You’ve heard it a million times before, but do try to dole out five portions of fruit and veg a day – it’s easier than you might think. Some NHS tips include adding fruit, such a banana, strawberries or sultanas, to a child’s breakfast cereal; giving dried fruit as a snack; popping extra vegetables in a pasta sauce or casserole for dinner.
Get them moving
Exercise is vital at all ages: the NHS points out, for instance, that children under the age of five who can walk unaided should be physically active for at least three hours a day, whether indoors or out. And those aged five to 18 should do at least one hour of aerobic activity every day – a mix of moderate activities such as walking to school, rollerblading, skateboarding or playing in the playground and more intensive exercise such as running, playing chase, vigorous dancing, football or riding a bike fast or on hills.
Cut back fat
As well as sugar, cutting back on fat is a key tool in the battle against obesity. The easiest and surest method is to limit junk food, and too many fatty treats such as cakes, crisps and chocolate. Children – especially the under-twos – do need a certain amount of healthy fat in their diet so when they are very young make sure they have full fat milk and dairy products. You can switch to lower fat varieties over the age of two. But watch out for the “bad” fats – saturated fat – in foods such as processed meats (burgers, sausages), pastry, coconut and palm oil. See Change4Life for more ideas on where to cut down on fatty foods.
Don’t use sweet treats as a reward
Try not to get into the habit, from the outset of weaning, of ‘rewarding’ good eating with a sweet treat at the end. Limit desserts to special occasions. A yoghurt or piece of fruit is fine if your child is still peckish after their meal.
Limit the telly
It’s a cliché but too much time spent stuck in front of the TV or computer games eats into the time spent engaged in active exercise. Place strict controls on your child’s TV and computer viewing habits to ensure they are encouraged into active play as much as possible – even if it’s just skipping in the garden or racing up and down the stairs.
Bring the whole family on board
The only sure way to ensure healthy eating and healthy habits is to set an example as a whole family – so don’t tuck into sweet treats and junk food while your child sits down to a plate of fish pie and spinach; make sure the whole family gets involved in activities at the weekends such as walking, swimming and outdoor games, and try to get everyone to respect mealtimes and sit around the table to enjoy them.