My son, 12-going-on-13, is just back after a week of camping, rafting and mountain-biking and looks the better for it. Apart from obvious smugness that comes after achieving many outdoorsy firsts such as cliff-jumping into the ice-cold water of the river Tons in the Himalayas, I can’t help but notice that he looks leaner and clear eyed, both indications of good health.
Apart from the acquiring the annoying habit of springing out of bed at 6 am —very healthy no doubt, but not something I want to cope with during summer break — camp seems to have been just the prescription needed to wean him away from the computer and sundry consoles he and his friends cannot do without at home.
Even in homes where parents closely monitor computer time, the amount of time children spend online is shocking. More so when there is no doubt that little or no activity is almost always to blame for weight gain in adolescence.
Once they are about 10 years old, children suddenly stop playing and become glued to their computers, consoles or cellphones. The virtual world rules and all entertainment becomes limited to facebook, twitter, online chatting and gaming.
Even the sporty ones switch from playing a sport to watching it.
They turned armchair experts who are clued into the FIFA World Cup and the English Premier League without having kicked a football in years.
The trouble in most homes is that while parents watch what their children do and don’t eat, they forget to push them out to work up a sweat playing a sport.
International studies confirm this. Reduced activity was as much, if nor more, to blame for British children weighing 2-3 kg more on an average in 15 years, reported a large British review of nutritional data on children from government surveys in 1983 and 1997.
The study, published in Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, found that total sugar intake in Britain averaged at 115gm/day in 1983, compared with 113gm/day in 1997. In comparison, mean body weight rose by 1.9 kg for 10-11 year olds and 3.4 kg among 14-15 year olds.
Since mean energy intake had dropped by 3 per cent in the same period mainly as a result of lower fat intake, the study concluded that sugar could not have caused the 2-3 kg increase in mean weight.
The study, however, noted that the key sources of dietary sugars have changed, with table sugar and sugar added to baked food like cakes and cookies being substituted with sugars in soft drinks and, to a lesser extent, fruit juice and breakfast cereals.
While a healthy diet is important, you must remember that diet restriction almost always impacts nutritional intake. You can safely give your children cheeses and shakes if you know they will burn it off in the field.
Thyroid disorders, fasting lipid profile, blood pressure and in some cases, endocrine imbalances, can cause obesity, though rarely. In urban India, it accounts for less than 2 per cent weight gain problems in children.
Physical activity — and by that I mean sports and not hanging around at malls or going for leisurely strolls with friends — for 45 minutes to one hour at least five days a week is as necessary as a healthy diet. Of course, limiting screen time — be it TV, films or computer games — to less than two hours a day helps to get the child to take some interest in the world outside the door.