Christmas pickings will be leaner this year for several overweight children in London primed to fill up on healthy food such as Brussels sprouts and fruit instead of extra helpings of turkey stuffing and pudding.
“Last year, in my stocking I had lots of chocolates. This year I just want toys and healthy stuff,” said 10-year-old Charlie Siggins, who meets with 10 other overweight and obese children twice a week to learn about nutrition and exercise. Classmate Brooke Ivers, 11, chipped in: “I’m not going to eat too much junk.” Bad diet and inactivity is pushing up obesity rates in England, where 19 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls aged 2 to 15 were classed as obese in 2004, a 50 percent increase in child obesity rates compiled in 1995.
Carrying extra weight can lead to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer, which puts a strain on the public health system, costing the English economy as much as £7.4 billion a year.
Sitting in a circle at a leisure centre in east London, Charlie, Brooke and the other children talk with a dietician about how to survive Christmas without overeating.
“You have to calm down,” said Anne-Marie Holdsworth, the dietician who runs the MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition Do it!) Programme — a 10-week course for overweight and obese 7 to 13 year olds and their parents. “Eat until you are full up and then stop. Also drink plenty of water,” she said, as the children nod in agreement and study a handout entitled “A MEND-friendly festive season dinner survival guide”, which offers tips on how to resist temptation.
A number of public and private initiatives are underway to encourage children to be more active and improve their diet. Among them is the privately-owned MEND Programme, which was conceived in 2001 by Paul Sacher, a paediatric dietician at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and clinical psychologist Dr Paul Chadwick.
Here, children learn about diet, nutrition and behavioural habits. Parents also attend and are encouraged to join in the discussions.