Childhood obesity is now a global epidemic reaching alarming proportions not just in the West but also here in the UAE. HEALTH speaks to Dr. Edwin D’ Souza, Professor at GMU who discusses the impending dangers of childhood obesity and what we can do about it…
From a mainstream diet of chicken nuggets and French fries to carbonated drinks coupled with a lack of exercise, there is no question that childhood obesity is on the increase and is largely due to the lifestyle changes that have occurred in families worldwide. According to Dr. D’Souza, obesity has become one of the most important public health problems in the developed countries. “As the prevalence of obesity increased, so did the prevalence of commodities associated with obesity,” he says.
Research suggests that the increase in childhood obesity is greater than 50 percent since 1960. This often starts very early on in life, with the increase in bottle-feeding and early introduction of solids into the diet. In fact, according to studies, babies who gain between 3.6 to 4.5 kilograms in their first four months, double their chances of obesity by the time they reach age of 20.
What It Means
The term “overweight” refers to an excess of body weight while “obesity” refers to excess of fat, tells Dr. D’Souza. “BMI Body Mass Index is the accepted standard measure of overweight obesity for children two years of age and older,” he says. “In the overweight category, BMI is between the 85th and 95th percentile for age and sex while in the obese category, the BMI is greater than 95th percentile for age and sex.” He adds that having an obese parent increases the risk of obesity by two to three folds. The likelihood of the persistence of childhood obesity into adulthood is related to age, parental obesity and the severity of the obesity.
Almost all obesity in children is strongly influenced by environmental factors, tells Dr. D’Souza which is caused by either a sedentary lifestyle of a calorie intake that is greater than required. “Other reasons include increasing trends in high Glycemic Index foods, sugar containing beverages, portion sizes for prepared foods, fast food service, a diminishing family presence at meals, decreasing structured physical activity, increasing use of computer oriented play activity and a decreased availability of playgrounds and sidewalks,” he explains. Also genetic factors play a permissive role and interact with environmental factors to produce obesity. “Also endocrine causes of obesity are identified as less than one percent of children and adolescents” he says with increasing evidence to support a role for metabolic programming in the development of obesity.
For preschool aged children, Dr. D’Souza recommends that outdoor play is particularly helpful. “Encourage physical activity by prescribing playground time and providing a list of local resources,” he says, while for older children, encourage structured physical activity whenever possible as well as participation in team sports, individual sports, or supervised exercise sessions.
Helping Treat an Obese or Overweight Child
- A universal measurement of BMI and plotting of results on a BMI chart can help monitor changes.
- A routine assessment of all children for obesity related risk factors to allow for early intervention.
- For children who are overweight or obese, a series of clinical counseling interventions. Remember communication and intervention should be supportive rather than blaming, it should focuses on the entire family rather than on the child alone.
- Establish a healthy feeding relationship early in life.
- Encourage a family to eat together.
- Limit the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages
- Encourage a diet with a good portion of vegetables and fruits.
- Limit fast food consumption.
- Encourage moderate to rigorous physical activity for at least one hour per day.
- Limit television and other screen time.
How to introduce your child to a variety of foods
- Offering new foods-it takes a long time for young children to try new foods…you may have to try 10 times or more.
- Offering favorite foods with new types of foods.
- Letting your child prepare foods.
- Be a role model for your child by eating with the child and showing your child that you like new foods.
- Limit the amount of low nutrient, sugar-sweetened drinks you give your child by offering only pure unsweetened juices instead of fruit drinks, punches, and soft drinks.
- Serve half to one cup of lowfat milk with each meal.
- Offer meals and snacks at similar times each day so that your child knows when to expect to eat.
Try These Tips
The best help for the child is often for the whole family to eat a healthier diet: less fat and sugar, more fresh fruit and vegetables and more unrefined carbohydrates. The following are more eating tips for children:
- Bake, grill, or boil foods rather than frying.
- Give water or diluted fruit juice, never sweetened drinks, when your child is thirsty.
- Give whole meal bread, raw vegetables, and fruit as snacks.