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Your ‘chubby’ kid may be overweight

A startling number of mothers in India delude themselves into believing their overweight children are 'chubby and healthy' and will lose 'baby fat' when they grow up. Sanchita Sharma writes. Quiz: Is your child's weight in jeopardy?

delhi Updated: Jun 03, 2013 02:03 IST
Sanchita Sharma

A startling number of mothers in India delude themselves into believing their overweight children are “chubby and healthy” and will lose “baby fat” when they grow up.

This was the findings of a four-city study that found almost one in five students aged 9-18 years were overweight or obese, with those with overweight mothers being least likely to be unhealthy.

The data, collected from 1,800 children across New Delhi, Agra, Bangalore, and Pune, found that 19.2% boys and 18.1% girls were overweight or obese.

“As much as genes, the quality of family meals were to blame,” said Dr Anoop Misra, director, internal medicine, Fortis hospital, who also led the study. Children and their mothers also had similar dietary habits, reports the study, which appeared in the medical journal Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism.

“Mothers are pivotal in a family’s health promotion, so if preventive obesity and diabetes-control programmes are focused on them, a snowball effect may occur not only limited to her children and to husband but also the extended family,” said Dr Misra.

The perception that ‘puppy or baby fat’ in children disappears as they grow older is a myth that puts their future health at risk. While earlier studies showed that excess weight during teenage years pre-disposes adults to weight problems later in life, a British Medical Journal study — which tracked 5,863 children as they developed into young adults — established that health problems related to overweight and obesity are established before teenage years.

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“Overweight children are not only at higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, polycystic ovarian disease and metabolic syndrome as adults, but they also get these disorders a decade or more earlier,” says Misra. They are also more likely to have orthopaedic and psychological problems.

By the time they are adults, the health problems usually set in. One in three teenagers aged between 13 and 18 years in Delhi is likely to have high blood pressure, reported a study by the Indian Institute of Nutrition. “You can’t do much about your genes or birth-weight, but you can eat healthy and get more active,” says Dr Misra.

Strangely enough, most mothers surveyed in India did not associate overweight with an unhealthy diet or poor health. Their idea of what was healthy was also warped, with most confusing hygienically prepared food with what was healthy.

Whether the mother worked or not had no impact on the child’s weight, though those who worked outside the home felt responsible for their child being overweight.

With most children either weighing too much or too little, the term ‘healthy weight’ seems to have been expunged from popular consciousness. Few parents know that the body mass index (BMI) — which can be calculated by your weight in kg divided by the square of your height in metres — is the best indicator of their healthy weight. In Indian adults, a BMI of 23 or higher is considered overweight, but the index varies in children depending on their height, gender and age. As a thumb rule, BMI decreases during the preschool years but gradually goes up over the teens.

“Children’s diets need even more attention than adults because their bodies are developing, with nutritional deficiencies leading to lifelong disorders such as osteoporosis. Weighing too much comes with its set of problems,” says nutritionist Anjali Mukherjee of Health Total, Mumbai. “They eat calorie-dense foods that are full of fat, sugar and carbohydrates and low in protein, essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients,” she adds.

Since parents have little control over what children eat at schools — most cafeteria staples are colas and deep-fried snacks — serving nutritious food at home becomes all the more important.

Quiz: Is your child's weight in jeopardy?