Child obesity is considered a major problem of our contemporary society. It is becoming common for children and teenagers to develop health problems, such as type II diabetes and hypercholesterolemia, which usually appears in adulthood. Childhood obesity is due to the influence of various factors such as heredity, family and social circle influences and last but not least the psychology of the child.
Children have a 50% chance of becoming obese if one of the parents is obese while the chances are increased if both parents are obese. Obesity can also be influenced by the fact that when a child lives in an environment unsuitable for outdoor games it is natural to find some forms of entertainment that promote physical inactivity such as television, computers, video games, etc. Accumulation of unwanted weight in children is also linked to the replacement of certain emotions with food. Many parents tend to reward their children with food. Usually, a child is given sweets or is rewarded with a meal in a fast food restaurant when it performs well in a school project with the result of linking food with positive feelings. Eventually food becomes an action related to positive emotions and later in adulthood overeating subconsciously sooths them when they are struggling to overcome a stressful situation or a negative emotion.
Childhood obesity can be treated with a proper diet, exercise and emotional support. Overweight children should not be encouraged to follow grueling diets as this might influence their natural and biological growth in a negative manner. It is a real challenge to stabilize a child’s weight in harmony with their increasing height during growth. In some severe cases of obesity weight loss should not exceed the amount of 2.2-4.4 pounds per month. With the help of an expert, a child should follow a balanced diet containing a combination of all food groups.
Scientific researches suggest that when a nutritionally balanced breakfast becomes a part of a child’s routine, children have less chances of becoming overweight. Children should also consume two main meals and two snacks that are nutritionally rich such as yogurt with fruit. Soft drinks or concentrated fruit juices should be replaced with fresh juices and water. Vegetables should always be a part of a main meal and when parents are accustomed to consuming vegetables children will eventually imitate them. Parents should also discover which vegetables are more likeable to their children and present them in an attractive way. Children over the age of 2-3 years can consume dairy products reduced in fat (semi-skimmed) as they contain the exact same vitamins as the full fat ones.
The combination of a balanced diet with physical exercise such as cycling, swimming or team sports guarantees a child’s good physical condition and a body weight that is close to their ideal.
In addition to promoting a balanced diet and exercise, parents should provide emotional support to their children. When a child is overweight parents should approach it in a diplomatic way and explain in a polite but yet comprehensive manner why the child has to pay attention to its nutritional intake and offer some examples. When speaking to children in need of a diet change, parents should avoid adjectives such as “fat” or “obese”.
Food should never be associated with emotion thus rewarding or punishing a child should not be supported with food. For example, many parents promise to reward their children with ice cream if they do well in their school exams or threaten them not to give ice cream if they do not eat their vegetables first. Ice cream in this case is used as a reward (positive emotion) and vegetables as something oppressive (negative emotion).
Parents have to realize that children imitate them in general and food consumption is not an exception. When parents follow a well balanced diet then children will follow and learn how to adopt a healthy way of eating.
In conclusion, one can say that children that follow a well balanced diet combined with exercise and adequate emotional support will have a healthy and natural growth and will maintain their ideal weight for their height.
Yiannis Kerimis MSc RD