Most parents would say that their child’s health is vitally important to them. Yet nearly a third of all children in the UK are overweight or obese – increasing their risk of long-term health issues and a shortened lifespan
Last year, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, offered his explanation: ‘Junk food, sugary fizzy drinks and couch potato lifestyles are normalising obesity and, as parents, a third of us can’t now spot when our own child is seriously overweight.’
National Childhood Obesity Week, running from 4 -10 July, aims to raise awareness of this escalating problem.
The 2014 Public Health Survey for England (PHSE) showed that 31% of children aged two to 15 were overweight or obese. The 2014/15 National Child Measurement identified 19% of Year 6 children (aged 10-11) as obese and a further 14% as overweight, while even more worryingly, 9% of Reception children (aged 4-5) were already obese, with another 12% overweight.
The danger of childhood obesity
Many people dismiss a child’s extra weight as ‘puppy fat’. This is a dangerous myth. Obese infants and children often remain obese into adulthood, greatly increasing their risk of serious health problems including premature onset of diabetes, premature onset of heart disease, cardiovascular disease, disability, musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis) and endometrial, breast and colon cancers.
Dr Sania Nishtar, Co-Chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, warns: ‘Overweight and obesity impact on a child’s quality of life, as they face a wide range of barriers, including physical, psychological and health consequences. We know that obesity can impact on educational attainment, too and this, combined with the likelihood that they will remain obese into adulthood, poses major health and economic consequences for them, their families and society as a whole.’
What the government is doing:
– The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) provides data to help the government understand children’s weight issues and formulate strategies for tackling them. Every year, trained healthcare professionals in school measure the height and weight of children in Reception class and Year 6, using these measurements to calculate a Body Mass Index (BMI) centile.
– Initiatives such as the Change4Life programme provide families with straightforward information about healthy lifestyles.
– The Sugar Tax may be controversial, but hopefully it will encourage companies to reduce sugar in their products. Government research shows that if sugar in soft drinks was halved, sugar consumption would decrease by 5g in young children and adults and 11g in 10-19 year olds. If the nation’s sugar intake dropped to recommended levels within 10 years, 4,000 early deaths could be avoided and the NHS would save £480 million every year.
What parents can do:
Give your child the best start: Exclusively breastfeeding babies until 6 months significantly reduces their risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Reduce their sitting time: Research has proved that sitting for prolonged periods damages our health, even if we get regular exercise. So keep their box set binge-watching sessions to a minimum and ensure they’re broken up with short bursts of activity – creating something, helping with gardening or a trip to the park.
Increase their physical activity: Find something they enjoy. Walking or cycling all or part of the way to school, a trip to the park or playground, countryside walks, kicking a football around, swimming, playing tag or trying a fitness videogame or dance DVD.
Ensure they get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can affect appetite-stimulating hormones, as well as affecting memory and concentration, lowering immunity and increasing the risk of mental and physical health problems.
Improve their diet:
Beware sugar – children and young people consume three times the recommended amount of sugar on average. Look out for hidden sugars in sauces and cereals, cut out sugary drinks and, if your children are used to adding sugar to cereals or drinks, wean them off slowly so that the change in taste isn’t too dramatic.
Provide at least five a day – this can be any form of fruit or vegetables, although ensure it’s not all from juices, as these contain free sugars just as damaging as those in sugary drinks.
Monitor portion size – active teens need more calories, but younger children need significantly smaller portions.
Monitor pocket money spending – ensure it isn’t spent on junk food and sweets.
Finally, set a good example. If you spend most of your free time in front of the TV or computer eating unhealthy snacks, it will be hard to persuade your child that following suit will damage their health and life expectancy.