Our children are getting fatter – how can we help them?


Over the past four decades, the number of obese children in the world has increased more than 10-fold. How do we change behaviour in an entire generation to protect our children from the consequences of obesity – both in childhood and later in life?

We are missing all the warning signs of a devastating trend that has the world’s children in its grip: obesity.

A recent study by the European Association for the Study of Obesity - also presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, Scotland - highlighted a more than 10-fold global increase in the number of children and adolescents with obesity over the past four decades.

That’s an increase from five million obese girls in 1975 to 50 million in 2016, and from six million obese boys to 74 million.

Are we blind to overweight, in our own children?

Looking at child health on a population level, we seem to be acutely aware of the problem and risks associated with obesity, poor nutrition and physical inactivity. Public healthcare campaigns have led to a greater awareness of the benefits of positive lifestyle changes in general - and are slowly resulting in some wins.

But on the whole, a 10-fold increase in the number of obese children and adolescents means that somewhere, we are missing the mark. While certainly not an easy problem to tackle, for various reasons, the question is whether we as parents and care-givers are able to recognise and address weight issues in our own children. In short, the answer seems to be ‘no’.

The European Study on obesity investigated the prevalence of, and risk factors associated with, an underestimation of children’s higher weight status. The results showed that over half of parents underestimated the degree of overweight in their children, with healthcare professionals sharing this misperception.

At the same time, a recent study of over 50 000 German children and adolescents, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that almost 90% of children who were obese at three years old, were also overweight in adolescence. Among those adolescents who were obese, the greatest acceleration in annual BMI increments happened between the ages of two and six.

We must plug the gap in obesity awareness – for the sake of our children

This sort of information gives us real insight into how prevalent and serious the lack of understanding around childhood obesity really is. It’s absolutely critical that we work to fill that gap.

As a nation, community or family unit, the right knowledge, awareness and recognition of health challenges, such as obesity, is one half of the battle won.

The second and equally important part, is to implement the necessary changes to address health challenges early on in life. We now know that poor lifestyle behaviours - physical inactivity, increased sedentary behaviour and poor nutrition - contribute greatly to obesity, which in turn, is associated with a greater risk of chronic illness such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

We also know that lifestyle behaviours - our daily habits over time, such as what we eat, how much we eat and how much we move and sleep -  all add up to get us to either an unhealthy or healthy point in future.

For us as parents, care-givers, teachers and policymakers, the critical question then becomes, where do we start in creating an environment that encourages our children to be healthier adults in future?

Start by assessing the environment in which our children live

The environments in which our children find themselves on a daily basis, may hold some answers. Are they conducive to healthy living or not? Do they promote activity or inactivity? The way we approach healthy eating and exercise as a family, and the policies and programmes our schools implement to encourage healthy habits, can be effective in helping children adopt the very behaviours that will do them good in future.

  • By structuring our home environment to make it easy to follow healthy habits and designing family activities and games around health activities, we can make healthy lifestyle choices a way of family life.
  • When it comes to our daily eating habits, increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables available at home and setting an example of what healthy eating means for our children, can foster a love of nutritious food. 
  • We can teach children to understand their own hunger signals. So while it may be tempting to encourage them to finish all that’s on their plate (even if it is a healthy plate of food), children intuitively know the right portion sizes to satisfy their hunger and we should encourage an awareness of this dynamic. They will need to determine their own satiety well into old age and this skill will go far in preventing over-eating.
  • While it’s hard to control everything that our children eat, particularly when
  • they are not at home, parents can limit sugary drinks and foods and offer healthier beverage and food options in the home environment as a norm.
  • Limit take-aways and encourage home cooking (which the children can help with) using healthy cooking methods.
  • Weekly family ‘rituals’ should be centred around physical activity, making exercise a special time spent together as a family. We should encourage not only free play outside, or sport, but let kids help with household chores or gardening tasks – so encouraging movement through ‘natural’ activity.
  • Limiting screen time is also key to child health. The more screen time allowed, the more sedentary children become.
  • Parents can incorporate their own reward system, one that revolves around a treat, such as going to the movies once the whole family has done a parkrun.

These sorts of solutions are available to us all and highly implementable in our daily lives. It’s up to us to be creative about getting our kids healthier. Their current and future health depends on us helping them to make the right choices today.

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