According to research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, the number of young South Africans suffering from obesity doubled in six years. This same increase happened over 13 years in the US.
The latest Vitality ObeCity Index also indicated that the increase in childhood obesity has been greater in some countries than the increase in adult obesity. In South Africa, 10% of girls and 8% of boys are overweight, compared with only 7% of girls and 6% of boys in the 80s.
The good news is that you can prevent childhood obesity. Here’s how:
Cut screen time
There is no disagreeing that screens have a role in entertainment and education. It’s the overuse that is a concern – with idleness and obesity the most harmful consequences. Children who spend more than four hours a day in front of a screen are twice as likely to be overweight.
The key is finding a balance – between screen time and other activities that stimulate social development and physical activity. Cutting down screen time will free up time for play and outdoor activity. Create a cellphone “parking lot” at home and limit use of screens for everyone in the family.
Play more and show support for being active
Regular activity helps children function better, maintain a healthy weight and learn social skills. “The most powerful influence is parents who do physical activity with their children and give them encouragement,” says Dr Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness. Parents can instil a love of activity and build movement into the daily routine.
- Make play fun. Enjoy the classics – Hopscotch, Hide n Seek, Eggy in the Middle and Stuck in the Mud.
- Give gifts of health. A cricket bat or soccer ball will get kids moving.
- Schedule active time. Plan family walks, a day with friends and games like soccer, hand tennis or Frisbee. Replace Friday night pizza with a putt-putt tournament.
- Encourage a variety of activities. Playing a variety of games and sports exposes kids to different skill sets, movement patterns and coordination, as well as gain different types of fitness.
- Be a sport supporter. Turning up to watch your kids play soccer or swim in a gala, or arranging lifts to practices sends the message that you support an active lifestyle. Do a park run together or just go for a walk.
Create good eating habits
Eating habits in childhood have a major influence on what you eat as an adult. So, the first step towards lifelong healthy eating is to consistently expose children to a varied and healthy diet.
The Vitality ObeCity Index included a 2017 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition took a closer look at advertising of food and soft drinks to South African children. They found 44% of food advertisements used child actors, and 20% of adverts were aired during children’s TV shows. The most frequently advertised foods include foods high in fat, sugar, salt, convenience meals and sugar-sweetened drinks. And, it is highly effective because it increases both preference for, and intake of, these advertised foods.
ALSO SEE: How to reduce your child’s sugar intake
Terry Harris, dietitian at Discovery Vitality, offers these tips to encourage healthy eating:
- Cut, peel and segment fruit in ready-to-eat, bite-sized pieces.
- Name food after super heroes. When children think their role model eats healthy foods, they are more likely to eat it too.
- Serve food on small plates and bowls to prevent over-eating or wasting.Children can always ask for seconds if they are still hungry.
- Make small changes to meal combos. Improve the nutritional value of a meal by giving only small portions of unhealthy foods. Include vegetables and legumes in traditional favourites to increase the quality e.g. put lentils in Bolognese.
- Offer healthy, nutritious snacks. When children eat vegetables, plain yoghurt or nuts, they eat significantly fewer kilojoules to feel full than when snacking on crisps or sweets.
Prepare meals at home
Make time to cook wholesome fresh meals at home and switch soft drinks and fruit juice for plain water, and remember to include the kids in the cooking process.
A Canadian study showed that higher involvement in preparing meals at home using unprocessed ingredients is instrumental to develop and maintain healthy eating behaviours in children. Teaching children how to prepare simple, yet healthy, meals could help them take this life skill into adulthood.