How Parents Can Prevent Childhood Obesity

How Parents Can Prevent Childhood Obesity The home environment determines whether a child will be obese or healthy

The obesity epidemic is rapidly growing all around the world. Moreover,  it is no longer confined to adults. More and more children are becoming obese at younger and younger ages. Sadly, the chubby kid usually goes on to become an overweight adult.

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Childhood obesity is a serious issue and must be prevented

Risks of Childhood Obesity

Children who are obese have a greater risk of developing serious health disorders, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Furthermore, they may also experience reduced emotional and social wellbeing. Being fat definitely affects one’s self-esteem and confidence. No one wants the fat kid on their soccer team, they are bound to lose.  Worse, obese kids are more likely to be bullied. Besides physical health, childhood obesity has a detrimental effect on a child’s mental health.

In today’s world where physical activity has diminished and fat-laden fast food has become a way of life, it is very easy to become obese. So, how does a parent avoid their child becoming obese? Prevention is always better than cure. Taking steps to avoid the problem is the best strategy.

Here are some common sense ways parents can avoid the fat-trap

1) Breast-Feed Your Child

Breastfeeding is “the first defense against the epidemic of obesity”. Studies have shown that babies who were breastfed had different gut bacteria environments, or microbiomes, in their guts –- and lower obesity levels as they grew -– than babies who were primarily fed formula. Breastmilk contains oligosaccharides, which are complex sugars that feed specific gut bacteria. That “good” bacteria in babies’ digestive systems affects how they burn and store fat, as well as how they use energy.

Formula milk, on the other hand, has sucrose, it’s super sweet, it makes the kid crave sugar. It triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, and it’s a comfort-level thing. It makes the kid want to eat more, so they become hypersensitive to sweetness. We condition them to crave sugar.

I can personally vouch that breastfeeding makes a child develop sugar aversion. I breastfed my son for two years with no formula or any other animal milk. My son hated sweets, he only began eating a little to keep up with his friends at boarding school. Even today as an adult, sweets are not his first choice of preference.

Taste develops early so try and breastfeed at least for the first 6 months.

2) Exercising Begins In Babyhood – Containerized Kids

In the early years, kids are naturally active – they roll, crawl, clamber, jump, walk and run. They want to be on the move. But nowadays what do parents do out of a misguided sense of safety – they put them in enclosures or containers. According to Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology who.coined the term ‘Containerized Kids referring to a daily assortment of constricting spaces: strollers, bouncy seats, high chairs, infant car seat carriers, and playpens kids are confined to from birth to toddlerhood. The unfortunate result of this is a lack of exercise and physical activity.

The problem is containers do such a good job of keeping kids in one place that babies don’t learn the basics of crawling and rolling.

Gradually, a child becomes programmed to be inactive and lazy. This not affects their metabolic rate, their body burns less energy, which is stored in the body as fat.

Lack of Exercise – Poor Muscle Tone

Furthermore, a lack of exercise in babyhood results in poor muscle tone. This results in a child who is clumsy and lacks movement skills. These children are unable to cross the midline of the body which is crucial for any physical activity, particularly in the sports field.

Children who spend too much time in these modern restrictive containers are at increased risk of becoming obese

So chuck the stroller and the playpen, let your child onto the floor or carpet and let them be free to do their thing. It is not going to be easy keeping an eye on the active little bambino but then its easier to build up a strong foundation than constantly repatch a weak structure.

Human beings are not meant to be sedentary, we are built for action.   Encourage physical activity from a young age, Don’t cage them and then expect them to be world-class athletes – muscle memory builds best in childhood.

3) Good Role Models – Eat Healthy

You cannot expect your child to eat healthy while you indulge in cakes and other high-calorie goodies.  They have to see you eating good, healthy food.  Taste is something that builds in childhood. What you give them to eat when weaning them to solid food determines their food preferences. So, here again, avoid packaged weaning foods – they are usually loaded with additives and sugar. Go for natural and regular food.

I will always be grateful to the kindly neighborhood grandmother who advised me to give my son overcooked, mashed dal (lentil) rice as his first solid food.  Till today it is his favorite. Gradually, I introduced veggies in his diet. Eating healthy food was never an issue in my home that was what he was exposed to. Exposure to vegetables is an important strategy during the weaning stage (around 6 months) to encourage acceptance

4) Beware of Hidden Sugar & Salty Snacks

Beware of the dangers of sugar, particularly hidden sugar.  Many modern convenience foods contain a lot of hidden sugar.

Most of your child’s favorite foods like juice, yogurt, pizza, ketchup, contain hidden sugars that add to the empty calories your child ingests.

Snacking on sodium-laden junk food is another major cause of childhood obesity. Eating an extra gram of salt each day increased the risk of obesity in children by 28% and in adults by 26%. Potatoes per se are healthy, but once dipped in oil and mixed with salt transforms from nutrition-rich, no-fat staple food to a high cholesterol snack increasing the chances of obesity and other diseases

So beware of convenience foods, cut these out of your pantry when your child is in the weaning stage. What you serve they will eat.

5) Television Exposure and Advertising

Don’t make television your child’s nanny. Putting your child in front of the television is exposing them to things and ideas which may not be good for them. Particularly,  toxic is the constant stream of unhealthy food advertising, from chocolates, biscuits, and chips, what they see will ignite their desire. Advertising can distort a child’s mind and negatively shape his perceptions. Cut the monster out.

Furthermore, studies have proven that lethargically watching television, is strongly associated with obesity in both boys and girls than any other type of sitting.

6)  Junk Food and Family Outings

Eating in fast food and full-service restaurants results in consuming more sugar-sweetened beverages – coke, milkshakes, ice-creams with syrupy toppings. Your child ends up consuming these items with no inclination for eating actual food. But then most food items at fast-food joints are fat and salt-laden addictive junk.   The Happy Meal is simply not good for junior’s health.

Soda consumption has been linked with becoming overweight and obesity as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Find other options for a family outing, go on a picnic to the park or visit the beach with your packed homemade sandwiches. One of the most endearing images in recent times of Duchess of Cambridge and her kids eating their packed meal when they went to watch their father, Prince William play polo.

It does take a little effort to ensure your child eats healthy but making sandwiches and packing fruit is a much better alternative to a big Mac.

7)  Stress and Keeping Meal-times Happy

The most important gift you can give your child is a happy home. When they are babies don’t let them cry untended, respond to them, nurture them, attune to them – make them feel safe and wanted.  Stress changes babies’ brains and primes them for obesity.

How?

Chronic stress activates your adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol can alter hunger cycles and trigger food cravings – particularly for sugar-filled comfort foods.  Cortisol triggers the release of insulin which helps in the release of glucose/energy necessary for the fight-flight response. However, when this energy is suppressed as in controlling or unsupportive homes it is converted to fat.

Obesity has been associated with the body’s inability to identify when to stop the production of cortisol, for example. When paired with low levels of growth and sex hormones, which also occur during chronic stress, excess cortisol can lead to increases in internal body fat.

Early life stress exposure may disrupt hormones that regulate appetite, metabolism, and fat storage, and thus increase the risk of obesity.

Your child is less likely to seek mood-boosting foods high in fat and sugar if they are happy.

8) Healthy Comfort Food

One poignant scene from the movie ‘Ratatouille‘ is where Anton the food critic is served ratatouille. Now, this dish is a simple French Provençal stewed vegetable dish. Nevertheless, when the irate, morose and cynical Anton takes one bite he is transported to seventh heaven. Why? It brings back memories of his mother serving him this dish one depressing afternoon.

So next time your child is upset don’t offer him/her chocolate or a packet of chips, maybe cut fruit or crack some walnuts which are a healthy option. Or still, better make him his fave mushroom omelet. The options are many all it takes is some imagination and a little effort. But the dividends are life-long.

It has been proven that adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.

Binge eating is a physical response to literally filling up the emptiness inside us. No doubt your child will go through highs and lows in life. It is up to you as a parent to fill his lows with healthy comfort food. Later in life when your child is going through stress he will reach for the comfort that Mom gave believing it will make him feel better. The comfort food that triggers the soothing memory of mom.

Anton Ego tastes Ratatouille his childhood comfort food

9)  Don’t Nag or Make Their Weight An Issue

Nagging kids about weight may backfire. Parental obsessions about weight could transfer to their kids, putting on more weight. Nothing is worse for a child to face a disproving and unaccepting parent. To soothe their already frayed nerves they will resort more overeating or worse may end up becoming bulimic or anorexic.
My own son became slightly overweight due to bullying and having learning difficulties but once we tackled the stressful situation his weight dropped dramatically.
So relax and get off your child’s back.

Prevention Better than Cure

Don’t wait till your child is overweight, take preventive measures from the day they are born. I don’t believe that genes are the reason for obesity. It is the scourge of modern civilization – unhealthy food habits, stress and lack of exercise.  Address these issues and nip the problem in the bud.  Your child’s health, happiness, and success depend on how fit he is. And you as a parent can literally shape his body and his life.

Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading:

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit DisorderRichard Louv 

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