Kids Fed Up?

- 02 July 2014 @ 16h43

Kids Fed Up?


The epidemic of childhood obesity is fast creating a national health crisis. Up to 5% of boys and a staggering 25% of girls in South Africa are obese or overweight. Only the UK, Canada, the USA and Mexico exceed our poor statistics.

Once considered predicaments mainly of the affluent, overweight and obesity are now markedly on the increase in low-income and middle-income populations, particularly in urban areas. In 2010, it was estimated that, globally, about 43 million children under the age of 5 years were overweight, and 35 million of these were living in developing countries. The fastest overweight and obesity growth rates are found in Africa – the number of overweight or obese children in 2010 was more than double that in 1990. Whereas undernutrition and communicable diseases were once the overriding health threat in developing countries, it is now estimated that non-communicable diseases, such as obesity-associated disorders, could be the cause of 7 out of every 10 deaths by 2020. South Africa however faces a double burden of disease where under nutrition and overweight or obesity are found in the same populations, in the same households and even in the same children.

To say nothing of the mental torment it inflicts on kids, being overweight can lead to a host of serious health problems from diabetes and sleep apnea to joint problems and gallbladder disease. Here’s something even more chilling: some experts suggest that this might be the first generation of kids to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

We hear statistics like this on such a regular basis that we run the risk of being desensitized to them. It’s time to step back and look at this issue with fresh eyes. After all, these are our children we’re talking about.

First, it may be helpful to understand the mechanisms behind the rising rates of childhood obesity so that we can make more informed choices in helping our own kids.

A study in the South African Journal of Science found that the increase in overweight children is linked to urbanisation, a decline in physical activity and diets rich in refined fats, oils and carbohydrates. Kids are contained indoors and immersed in playing increasingly compelling video games on increasingly wider-screen TV’s — while munching on increasingly fatter foods.

It’s easier than you may think to help your kids live healthier lives. Here are five strategies to do just that:

1.      Set a Better Example

While 5% of boys and 25% of girls are overweight, that number pales in comparison to adults: a whopping 29% of men and 56% of women are classified as overweight or obese in South Africa. A recent survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation found that, more than anyone else, parents have the most potential to influence their children’s behaviour, including their eating habits. Parents were chosen by kids as their most important role model, outshining “rock stars” and “celebrities.”

This survey confirms what we’ve long known: kids watch what their parents do and they follow much of that behaviour. That certainly includes eating and exercise. Research has found strong links between the food mothers eat and the choices made by their children.

We cannot slump onto the couch and command our kids to “go get some exercise.” Part of helping your child commit to better fitness is becoming a positive role model by making your own exercise a priority and by playing with your child more often.

Exercising with your children is a great way to spend quality time with them, improve their health and make your own exercise more rewarding. Staying fit can improve your child’s self-esteem and decrease their risk of developing serious illnesses, such as heart disease or Type II diabetes.

You can also set a good example by eating better. Improving your diet needn’t be unpleasant or unpalatable either. Healthy food isn’t what it used to be. There are more sumptuous options out there than ever before; it’s just a matter of taking the time to find them.

 2.    Limit TV Time

The average child gets less than one hour of exercise per week, but watches more than 30 hours of television. Thirty hours. That’s mind bogging! A study found that a child’s risk of obesity doubles for every hour of TV he or she watches each week; for many kids, that’s a whole lot of doubling going on. You may consider striking a deal with your children: for every one hour of TV viewing, they must engage in half an hour of fun physical activity. The operative word there is “fun.”

3.    Make it Fun (Really Fun)

Parents, coaches and teachers need to band together and commit to keeping sports fun and challenging for kids. If kids who are overweight are having fun, weight loss comes as a natural consequence of the activity, rather than the focus. Make having fun the singular focus of your child’s relationship with physical activity.

Kids who enjoy sports and exercise tend to stay active throughout their lives. Expose kids to new activities that they truly enjoy — and that they excel in.

Never before have there been more sports available to kids: ballet, water polo, soccer, golf, tennis. Keep trying new activities until you find the one that clicks with your kid.

4.    Strike a Junk Food Deal

South Africans are increasing their consumption of junk foods. Compared with a worldwide average of 89 Coca-Cola products per person per year, in 2010 South Africans consumed 254 Coca-Cola products per person per year, an increase from around 130 in 1992 and 175 in 1997. In 2010, up to half of young people were reported to consume fast foods, cakes and biscuits, cold drinks, and sweets at least four days a week. Carbonated drinks are now the third most commonly consumed food/drink item among very young urban South African children (aged 12–24 months)—less than maize meal and brewed tea, but more than milk.

You may want to consider this approach: no junk food during the week, but on weekends, allow your kids to slack off and have the bad stuff. That way, they’re consuming less overall junk food, and you haven’t made it as taboo, which only increases their desire to have it. Another related strategy to help kids eat better is not to deny the “bad foods,” but merely to insist that they have the “good stuff” first. The idea is that after eating the good, they will have less room for the bad. That’s not a bad suggestion for parents, either!

5.    Spend More Time Eating Together

In our culture, we tend to view food as a tool rather than as nourishment. We often eat on the run and give little or no thought to what we’re putting into our bodies, or how we’re doing that. We need to give more reverence to food — and to mealtimes. Establish daily meal and snack times, and eat together as frequently as possible. Some research has shown that kids who sit down to eat with their families develop healthier dietary habits. This is a tip that can benefit parents as well.

Exercising with your children is a great way to spend quality time with them, improve their health and make your own exercise more rewarding. Staying fit can improve your child’s self-esteem and decrease their risk of developing serious illnesses.

We cannot blame this problem on video games, TV commercials — or the “resistance” put up by our children. That merely disempowers us. The solution to the problem of childhood obesity in this country — resulting from too little exercise and poor nutrition — rests squarely on the shoulders of parents.

Let’s all take the concerted and consistent action necessary today to improve the health and fitness of our children. Their lives depend on it!

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