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Overweight and obesity in children... Let's talk about it

Posted by Ines Astudillo APD on 4 April 2014
Overweight and obesity in children... Let's talk about it

We well know that childhood overweight and obesity is a concerning health problem in Australia. Up to 1 in 4 school-aged children in Australia  are overweight or obese. Carrying excess body fat increases the risk of developing ongoing health problems such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease in the future. It can also come with social and psychological problems such as bullying and low self-esteem issues.

Overweight and obesity can be a sensitive issue and discussion of a child’s weight needs to be handled with care. Parents have a huge load of responsibilities- juggling work, finances, their own health, relationships, life, and raising little people. Understandably for some parents, their child’s weight issue can be overwhelming and can leave them feeling like they are failing. However, there are a large number of factors that contribute to what we eat: parents should seek assistance from their GP and an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

So how do you know if your child is overweight or obese? It can be difficult to work out whether a child is overweight by just using visual appearances.  A useful screening tool is the Body Mass Index (BMI)-for-age percentile which is based on a child’s height and weight, and is sex specific. This tool gives some indication of the level of body fat and is helpful to identify a possible weight issue; however, interpretation requires care and further in-depth assessment by a health professional.

Does your child need to lose weight? Each child is different and the approach to weight management should be individualised to the child. The take home message for children and families is the importance of adopting healthy lifestyle habits for a healthy weight for the long term. That is, learning how to eat healthily and get plenty of physical activity as a lifestyle change, rather than trying to lose weight with unsustainable ‘dieting’ and excessive restrictions. Children usually do not need to lose weight on the scales to become thinner. If they stay the same weight, then as they grow taller they will slim down.

What steps can you take to start better lifestyle habits? Here are some questions that may be helpful to start a health focus: Is your child due for a growth progress check-up? Is your child eating nutritious foods that promote healthy growth and development? Are they getting at least one hour of physical activity every day? And do they drink enough water?

Here are 3 tips for healthier lifestyle habits:

1. Make healthy food choices easy at home- Stock the fridge and cupboards with nutritious foods from the 5 food groups (refer to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating for more information). Buy ‘discretionary’ or optional foods only sometimes (less than once per week) and in small amounts or packets.

2. Pack a healthy lunch box:
? A healthy sandwich using wholegrain bread, lean protein and salad vegetables
? A piece of fruit and a calcium rich food e.g. milk, yoghurt, cheese or alternative
? Vegetables e.g. cut up sticks of celery, capsicum, cucumber, carrot, cherry tomatoes
? A healthy extra e.g. healthy homemade vegetable muffin

3. Lead by example - It makes sense that the research shows that parents are the ones who are most likely to be able to influence changes. Parents do have the ability to change and shape children’s eating habits and activity levels. It can be challenging to get children to eat some healthy foods such as vegetables, lean meat and fruit. However, children can learn to eat healthy foods over time, with repeated exposure and a positive eating environment. A parent can offer healthy foods and show their child what to do with the food, how to eat it and enjoy it. Remember it can take more than 20 times of offering a food before the child may interact with the food, accept the food, and finally eat it.

Author:Ines Astudillo APD