Is your child overweight? Obese children are four times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than healthy-weight peers, showed UK data from close to 370,000 children aged 2 to 15. But if you’re an overweight child, there is more trouble ahead.
Overweight children have a greater chance of growing into obese adults and developing problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, breathing disorders including sleep apnea and asthma, joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort, fatty liver disease, gallstones, heartburn and some cancers.
They are also more likely to have psychosocial problems, including depression and low self-esteem.
Encouraging your child to lose weight is the obvious fix, but that’s easier said than done. Diet plans for adults don’t work for children because, along with cutting calories, dieting causes nutritional deficits that can impair a child’s physical growth and mental development.
Here then are seven tips to healthy weight-loss in children.
Set realistic goals. Children need a nutrition-packed diet for their bodies and brains to develop, so you have to make sure they get at least 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day, depending on their gender (boys need more) and how active they are, irrespective of gender. Many children lose excess weight as they grow taller between the ages of 10 and 15. If they don’t, and instead continue to pack on the kilos, target to have them lose between 1 kg and 2 kg a month. Anything more could lead to sub-optimal growth and development.
Get them moving. Walking, playing a sport or just standing around talking to friends burns far more calories than sitting hunched over a smartphone. Walking, cycling, swimming or playing an active sport like cricket, football, tennis or badminton for at least an hour a day are a must for any healthy child, but most children stop doing this when they hit their teens, often because of academic pressure. Try not to let this happen, because this is also the time when your kids will develop the lifestyle habits that will stay with them, such as taking stairs instead of a lift or walking instead of driving.
Offer fresh foods. Encourage children to eat home-cooked food and, as far as possible, cut down on mid-meal snacking unless it’s fresh fruit, milk, unsweetened yoghurt (curd) or sprouts. Eat whole foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains — often, as they are low in calories and loaded in protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins.
Avoid packaged snacks. Even low-fat ‘baked not fried’ snacks contain unhealthy fats and are low in fat, salt and sugar only relatively to the original calorie-dense products. Low-fat chips, for example, have fewer calories than regular chips but it is still a lot of calories. One serving of chips (10 pieces) has about 150 calories, ‘light’ and ‘reduced’ chips have 75 to 100. You would need to walk 2 km to burn 75 calories!
Make drinking water a habit. Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, so children may end up eating when they are just thirsty. Instead of juices, colas and sweetened shakes, children must get into the habit of drinking water to stay hydrated. Even juices with no added sugar are high in calories, from the natural sugars found in fruit. An unsweetened glass of juice has at least double the calories one would get from the whole fruit, which also comes with dietary fibre that lower hunger pangs by making you feel full.
Don’t stop desserts. Children aiming to lose weight must cut back on junk food and sugary treats such as ice-cream, but they should not be completely deprived because that could lead to cravings. Cut back on portion sizes and allow your child to have his or her favourite treat once a week or twice as a reward for sticking to a healthy meal plan.
Lead by example. Food habits form at home, so the whole family must adopt healthy eating habits and become more active to help children lose weight. You can’t expect your child to chew on carrots while playing soccer if you spend all of Sunday eating fried chicken while watching the Premier League.
Children must learn to eat when they’re hungry and not just because there’s food around. Replace junk food at home with healthy snacks — nuts, seeds, trail mix and fruit — to prevent cravings. Stop snacking and dining in front of a laptop or TV set, because mindless eating usually results in overeating.
Losing weight is most effective when it’s a group effort. The big plus is that everyone gets healthier while helping junior get fit.