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Weight on their minds

Bubbly Siddharth, all of three, turned clingy and irritable within months of joining playschool earlier this year. His parents could not figure out what had happened to their happy, laughing baby. “It was like watching our child transform into someone else overnight. He became irritable and withdrawn, started having frequent bouts of crying, and refused to meet or play with other children. We did not know what to do,” says his mother Roshni Sehgal, 32.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 04, 2009 22:58 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Bubbly Siddharth, all of three, turned clingy and irritable within months of joining playschool earlier this year. His parents could not figure out what had happened to their happy, laughing baby. “It was like watching our child transform into someone else overnight. He became irritable and withdrawn, started having frequent bouts of crying, and refused to meet or play with other children. We did not know what to do,” says his mother Roshni Sehgal, 32.

They tried to find out what the problem was, but Siddharth refused to be drawn out. In desperation, the Sehgals decided to seek professional help and took Siddharth to Children First, an emotional well-being centre for children in New Delhi’s Vasant Vihar.

It did not take long for clinical psychologist Dr Shailaja Sen to get to the root of the problem. “Siddharth had been nicknamed ‘Motu’ (Fatty) at school, and the jeering made him feel rejected and depressed. The jibes and harassment made him withdraw socially and he began refusing to go out, which added to his loneliness,” says Dr Sen.

Ironically, Siddharth was not even obese. “He loved to eat and was not sporty, so had a little belly. Perceptions about the body image have changed and even preschoolers today obsess about being thin. About 40 per cent of children we get have weight-related anxieties,” adds Sen.

Paediatrician Dr Anupam Sibal has got children as young as two coming to him with weight issues at his Defence Colony clinic and Apollo Hospital. “A couple of years ago, weight problems were more common in girls, but now boys are catching up, with most looking for a lean look without exercising,” says Dr Sibal, who says 60 per cent of weight-related cases are still among girls.

Weight loss remains high on the to-do list of pre-adolescents. When 10-year-old Anu Arora, a class five student of Modern School, was asked what she did this summer during school holidays, she beamed, “I had a great time. I lost 3 kg in the hols.” She did it the right way — swimming, travelling and eating right — but her answer showed that the weight loss was the high point of her vacation.
Dr Sibal elaborates, “Earlier, parents would drag overweight children to doctors saying, ‘doc please prescribe a diet plan’. Now children drag parents to us looking for slimming solutions.”

A new study published last week by University of Missouri’s Applied Developmental Science department has found that overweight children, especially girls, are more depressed, anxious and lonely than kids who were never overweight — and those negative feelings worsened over time.

“Being overweight or obese is increasingly becoming socially unacceptable, with overweight individuals being blamed for their situation. When stigmatisation begins in childhood and remains unresolved, it can lead to social withdrawal and eating disorders such anorexia and bulimia in later life,” says Dr Sen.

The reason for the weight gain in childhood is almost always the lack of exercise. “Parents tend to lecture children about eating healthy and playing more, while they themselves sit and watch TV.

Weight loss is often the central issue of conversation in many homes, making it an emotive issue for children. Parents have to lead the life they want their child to have. You can’t expect your child to eat vegetables while you are eating leg of lamb,” says Dr Sen.

“Kids don’t play anymore, neither at home nor at school. All entertainment is limited to Facebook, Twitter, chats, the Internet and console games. They watch sports but don’t play. They are clued in to EPL (English Premier League) and Formula One, but ask them when they last played football, they will hem and haw,” says Dr Sibal.

Though he makes his overweight patients undergo tests such as thyroid disorders, fasting lipid profile, blood pressure and, in some cases, endocrine profile, he says medical problems are rarely the cause for weight gain. “It accounts for weight problems in less than 2 per cent cases.

Encouraging children to get more active — playing an active sport for 45 minutes, at least five days a week — and eating healthy by not snacking in the school canteen is what is needed,” says Dr Sibal.