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Childhood Obesity

Rohini Diniz

In the years gone by, a cute and ‘roly poly’ child was considered healthy while those who were thin and lean unhealthy. Well today, things have changed and this notion of chubby being healthy is no longer true. Unlike in the West, India has seen a surge in the incidences of childhood obesity in the last 25 years. A study conducted some years ago in the five metros – Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai showed that one in every five school going children is overweight.

The term overweight refers to excess body weight for a particular height whereas the term obesity is used to define excess body fat. Both overweight and obesity primarily develop due to excess calorie intake and insufficient physical activity. But other factors such as heredity, hormonal imbalances, behavioural and environmental factors also play a role in its development.

Being obese is not just a cosmetic problem but a health hazard too. Many diseases that were earlier seen in older adults are now occurring in adolescence and early adults. More than 60 per cent of overweight children have raised blood pressure and increased blood cholesterol levels (hyperlipidaemia) which predisposes them to developing heart disease or increased insulin levels (hyperinsulinemia) which predisposes them to diabetes. Overweight or obesity also leads to other problems such as Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver (NAFL); psychological problems such as low self-esteem, depression; infertility, skin and hair problems, osteoporosis and respiratory disorders.

Science shows that genetics plays a strong role in the development of obesity and it has been proven that children with obese parents are more likely to be obese. If one parent is obese there is 50 per cent chance of the children being obese and when both parents are obese the chances are as high as 80 per cent.

Most often, obesity has its roots in infancy. Many children are born with birth weights above 3 kilograms which predisposes them to being overweight and obese if they are not careful about their diet and exercise in childhood and adolescence. It is a well know fact that breast milk alone is best for infants up to 6 months of age, however because of various factors this is not followed and infants are fed sweetened formula milk or animal milk and sweetened water. Faulty weaning practises such feeding infants sweetened fruit juices, excessively sweet porridges, baby cereals and biscuits results in an excess of calories over and above the baby’s daily needs.

While adding sugar, jaggery or ghee is important to increase the energy content of weaning foods, excessive amounts needs to be avoided. As an infant grows into a toddler, many mothers, grandmothers or maids feel that the child needs to eat a particular quantity of food at a meal and hence force feed and over feed a child.

Since both parents are working, eating out has become the norm for many families today. Many working parents find it convenient to order food from fast food joints or other takeaways rather than cooking meals from scratch. The problem with restaurant food is that it is rich in calories but low on vitamins, minerals and antioxidant. Another problem with restaurant food is that portion sizes are today becoming larger or super sized so children are eating more calories in a single portion of a food. Apart from this many children particularly adolescents do not carry tiffins from home to school and prefer to eat the junk food that is available at school canteens during the mid morning break.

Television commercials promoting unhealthy foods and eating habits have also been large contributors to the rising obesity epidemic as advertisers have been more successful at changing the food habits of children than parents.

Children in today’s society show a decrease in overall physical activity. The growing use of computers, increased time watching television and decreased physical education in schools, all contribute to children and adolescents leading more sedentary lifestyles. Children prefer to play games on tablets or laptop computers, mobiles or play stations rather than going outdoors to play. They prefer watching sports on TV rather than going outside and playing the games themselves. What is more, when children watch TV they snack on unhealthy junk foods such as chips, wafers, biscuits, etc, which are all high calorie foods. This problem is still worse for the children living in urban areas as they lack open spaces and play grounds, making them more inactive. Even if playgrounds exist, children are burdened with long school hours, homework and tuitions leaving them with no time to play.

So what can be done? Obesity needs to be controlled right in childhood itself. Remember as a parent you play a critical role in looking after your overweight child. Watch out for Part II of this article for tips on managing overweight children.

To be continued. . .

 

(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 20 years of experience, practising at Panaji and can be contacted on rohinidiniz@gmail.com)

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