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Far From A Weightless Issue

A growing number of children are suffering from obesity - and the implications, both physical and psychological, are a serious matter. What can you do to prevent your child from becoming obese? What can you do if your child is obese? Several years ago, in the North Hills School District in Pittsburgh, USA, a furore started when a school nurse sent notes to parents of children who were overweight - highlighting the health risks and suggesting steps these parents could take to help their children achieve their ideal weight.

This same nurse had sent such notes to parents before, for children who needed glasses or were hard of hearing, and these notes were taken positively by the parents who received them. So why did parents get so upset when told their children were carrying... well... more than just a little baby fat?

Social Issues

Unfortunately, unlike other health `conditions; obesity carries with it a social stigma. Needing glasses or a hearing aid is not a failure of character. Weighing too much is. Sure, genetics may make a person more susceptible to weight-gain and less responsive to weight-loss efforts, but ultimately, being obese reflects heavily (no pun intended) on one's lifestyle. Weighing too much means we're eating too often, eating too much, eating unhealthy foods and not exercising enough. We are fat because we don't live right.

This is a harsh reality to accept, yet if your child is obese, refusing to admit it will more than likely cost you - and your child - more than just the "face" factor. Studies have shown that some 70 percent of overweight children become overweight adults, and carrying an unhealthy amount of excess weight will place the child at risk of some very grave `adult' illnesses - including diabetes mellitus, high blood cholesterol and heart disease.

Sporadic studies have shown that, in both sexes, rates of diabetes, coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, hip fracture and gout were increased in those who were overweight as adolescents. Thus, the notion that early onset obesity was suggested as a risk factor for morbidity and mortality later in life. The damaging effects and metabolic stress placed on the body as a result of obesity can start in childhood and will persist into adulthood, if not rectified:

The Cause

Obesity is defined as an excessive accumulation of body fat. This is when body weight is at least 25 percent over the ideal weight for boys and at least 32 percent over the ideal weight for girls. Obesity doesn't stem from just one cause. As Dr Simon says, it is "thought to be a multifactorial trait":

He explains, "Both genetic and environmental factors play their part. Poor dietary habit and an inactive lifestyle will lead to obesity, especially if an individual has genes which predisposes him or her to excessive weight gain. It has been hypothesised that these individuals may gain more weight and at a faster rate than others, and it may be more difficult to shed the extra pounds:'

The Consequences

Obesity presents numerous problems for a child. In addition to the increasing risk of obesity in adulthood, childhood obesity is the leading cause of paediatric hypertension, coronary heart disease and fatty liver - which may lead to a long-term liver disease. 

Type II Diabetes

Dr. Simon warns of some other health issues that may plague these children. "Obese children are also at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes at a younger age, usually around puberty. If there is a family history of diabetes, the risk is even higher:"

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea

He continues, "Obese children are also prone to developing an obstruction of their upper airway passages during sleep as a result of the excessive fat deposition in the head and neck region (Obstructive Sleep Apnoea). Children with this problem may appear to have snoring or breathing difficulty during sleep, and as a result, have very poor quality of sleep which will affect their learning ability and concentration in the day."

Joint Problems

Obese children are also likely to develop joint problems early in life. Dr Simon says, "The growing bones and joints (of obese children) have to sustain a greater weight and mechanical load, and some children thus develop bent knees or hip problems:"

Social And Psychological Problems

Some experts also feel that social and psychological problems are the most significant consequences of obesity in children. According to Dr Simon, "This is probably a bigger problem than the medical problems, and is often unrecognised and ignored. Obese children are more prone to being teased by their peers about their weight and appearance.

They may be stigmatised as being lazy, greedy and ill-disciplined and they may develop poor body image and low self-esteem as a result:" He also mentions that while the causal relationship is unclear, it is always a concern that overweight children may develop eating disorders.

The Prevention

There are ways to prevent your child - in fact, your whole family! - from becoming obese, even if genes may make him or her susceptible to weight gain. Dr Simon reiterates an age-old dicbe - good habits begin in the home. "Parents should inculcate and instil good dietary habits and an active lifestyle in their children from a young age," he says."It is important that children learn to accept and appreciate a healthy and balanced diet. Excessive snacking and consumption of foods and drinks with high sugar content should be discouraged:'

Dr Simon also reinforced the importance of exercise and an active lifestyle. "(Children) should be encouraged to participate in physical activities regularly - even a short daily visit to the playground will help!" Naturally, children will tend to be more motivated to embark on a healthy lifestyle if the whole family participates. Physical activities such as swimming, cycling and ball games work up a good sweat - and the best part is, they're lots of fun for the family!

"Do exercises which are age-appropriate and fun, not punitive," Dr Lee advises. "This will go a long way in ensuring that the children will continue to lead a healthy lifestyle in their later years:" Furthermore, not only will you inculcate an active and healthy lifestyle in your children, but you will also be able to spend quality time with them.

The Solution

It isn't the end of the road for children who are already obese. There are many ways parents can help their children achieve their ideal weight. And contrary to popular belief, dieting isn't necessarily the best way to go. "It may not be wise to make an overweight child undergo strict dieting, as the child is still growing and needs essential nutrition for other aspects of growth;' says Dr. Simon.

A stringent diet programme could also cause the child to suffer extreme cravings for the foods they are deprived of. If a child begins bingeing, it will only be a matter of days before the months of dieting would have gone to waste. So how do you ensure a growing child gets the nutrition he needs, isn't utterly deprived of his or her favorite foods, yet be able to shed all those extra pounds?

A Healthy And Balanced Diet

Dr Simon makes it simple. "Teach them to adopt a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid foods and drinks with high fat and high sugar content;' Just like adults, children need to eat a wide variety of foods for good health. These include balanced portions of carbohydrates (such as bread, rice cereal and pasta), meat (including fish, poultry and eggs), milk, fruits and vegetables.

Fats, oils and sugars should be served sparingly. When you help your children build healthy eat ing habits early, they will approach eating with a positive attitude - that foods, when consumed in moderation, are something to enjoy, help them grow, and give them energy.

Regular Physical Activities

Of course, to ensure your child achieves his ideal weight, a balanced diet must be accompanied by regular physical activities - be it swimming, cycling, ball games and more. It is best if the entire family can join in, so the child does not feel singled out. Also, keep the atmosphere fun-filled and relaxing, as this will motivate the child to keep up with these activities and not give up on the routine.

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