All children need to gain weight as they grow older, but gaining more than what’s needed for their growth and development can lead to childhood obesity. Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that occurs when a child is at least 20 per cent above the normal weight for his or her age and height.
A global dilemma
Ironically, while malnutrition is still a major concern in our country, the number of children who are overfed and still undernourished is also on the rise.
Increased consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods with high levels of sugar and saturated fats, combined with reduced physical activity, has led to an increase in the rate of obesity among children in India.
While the percentage of obesity among adults is 18 per cent according to the WHO, it is a shocking 30 per cent among children. In Delhi alone, 24.2 per cent of school children were found to be obese in a recent study by the Diabetes Foundation of India. Closer home, affluent schools in Mumbai and Pune find close to 50 per cent of their students obese.
Childhood obesity is fast emerging as a global dilemma, as the medical dangers of obesity increase with age. Obese children suffer from depression, low self-esteem, poor body image and social isolation that hampers their participation in sports and social gatherings.
The long-term consequences could include hypertension, endocrinal disturbances, diabetes, dental problems, sleep disorders and behavioural problems, premature arthritis, age-related disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and even cancer.
In addition to these diseases, excess fatty tissue can cause hormonal imbalances and lead to the early onset of menstruation in girls. This in turn may hamper their growth.
The ideal diet strategy
Childhood obesity has to be tackled with a multi-disciplinary approach. One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in your child is to improve the diet and exercise levels of your entire family.
While working out a healthy regime for your child, don’t blindly cut calories, as this could adversely affect the child’s growth and also be psychologically stressful. Instead, focus on a balanced diet, healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle.
Restrict calories by cutting down on unhealthy fat intake without depriving your child of nutrients.
Adopt a diet that contains 50 to 60 per cent of calories from complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), 20-30 per cent from lean proteins (whole pulses, eggs and chicken) and not more than 20 per cent from healthy fats. With this diet, you will be able reduce at least 200 – 300 calories a day, leading to an approximate weight loss of 1.5 to 2 kg a month.
Restrict the consumption of simple sugars, junk food, aerated drinks and meats to once in a fortnight. Include food with more dietary fibre such as fruits, vegetables and unrefined cereals in your child’s daily intake.
Do not forbid your children from eating snacks. Help them make wise snack choices. Healthy snacks would include fruits, nuts (almonds and peanuts), sprouts bhel, vegetable frankies (made with whole wheat flour), milk products like curd, cottage cheese (or paneer), tofu and roasted or steamed corn.
Ensure that your child’s diet has adequate amounts of calcium. While a glass of milk or a grilled cheese sandwich might be the easiest way to do this, not every child can — or will — consume dairy delights. You can supplement their diet by including dark leafy vegetables, legumes like chick peas, nuts (such as almonds), soyabean, sesame seeds (in the form of til laddoos) and whole grains like nachni.
Encourage your child to drink a lot of of tepid water (10-12 glasses a day), watery soups, vegetable broths and vegetable juices. These juices not only provide your child with antioxidants, vital nutrients and fibre, but also create a feeling of satiety, thus controlling compulsive overeating. Serve whole fruits instead of fruit juices.
Encourage physical activity in the form of active group games and sports such as tennis or swimming.
Restrict television viewing and computer or video games to not more than 30 minutes per day.
As parents, encourage your children to eat at meal times so that they don’t feel hungry in between meals and binge on fast food. Children are good learners, and they learn best by example. Parents who don’t eat healthy cannot expect their children to eat healthy.
It is most important for the child to firmly believe that the pleasure of being trim and healthy is greater than the pleasure of eating unwisely. Once this realisation sets in, half the battle of the bulge is won.
Dr Anjali Mukerjee is a nutritionist and founder of Health Total, a nutrition counselling centre.