A third of children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. Heres how parents can help them forge good habits and avoid creating lifelong insecurities
Jusna Begum lives near the South Bank in London with her four children, aged between one and 11. When a health visitor told her that her three-year-old girl was on the chubby side, Begum was surprised. I didnt think she was at all; I had felt like my children werent eating enough.
She did, however, accept an invitation to join a six-week healthy parenting programme called Henry. Four weeks in, she has rebooted her familys lifestyle, from making dinner times earlier to allow for more activity before bed to the food she prepares. Coming from an Asian background, says Begum, Theres a lot of fatty food we use a lot of oil and salt in curries. Her children also loved drinking juice and snacking on crisps and chocolate after school. I would just allow them, she says, incredulously. I thought it was normal.
In following her health visitors advice, however, Begum is in a minority. Just one-third of parents who are informed that their child is overweight or obese accept any help offered to them. Peyman Adab, a professor of chronic disease epidemiology and public health at the University of Birmingham, has been developing obesity prevention and management programmes for nearly 20 years, including studying parental responses. There is definitely underrecognition of obesity, she says. Part of it is that we base our judgment on whats normal, whats around us, and as more children become obese and overweight you compare and say: My child isnt that overweight.
In the 1980s, less than 2% of those aged five to 10 were obese. These days, one-third of children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, yet many adults dont see the problem. A 2014 study in the British Journal of General Practice found that parents dont tend to class their children as overweight until they are in the 99.7th centile, which is morbidly obese.
Some parents dont think children can be overweight, says Adab. They talk about puppy fat, and they think the children will grow out of it. They dont see it as something that becomes established and yet the evidence is that it does track through [into adulthood].
While every child develops differently, healthy puppy fat generally ends with toddlerhood. The critical periods are around ages five and six and again around puberty when, says Adab, there is a tendency for weight gain and perhaps we should be intervening more.
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