To offer today’s urban child a healthy meal comprising fresh fruits or vegetables normally elicits a response worthy of a vampire to garlic. But show the same children a plate of junk food and chances are their eyes will light up. And as for healthy drinks, forget it, they just don’t have the fizz. This explains why figures compiled by the ministry of women and child development show that at least 13 per cent of schoolchildren in New Delhi are at risk of heart disease and diabetes in adulthood as a result of unhealthy dietary habits and sedentary lifestyle. Delhi is not alone in this. Children in most metros shun the concept of outdoor activity. In a world of PlayStations and video games, children live in a virtual world that they can access from the confines of home. The little exercise most of them get is in school but then a whiz around the field hardly amounts to the sort of activity that children need. Childhood obesity leads to all sorts of complications later from hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease and psychological problems. And the problem is growing. Many of these conditions are not curable but can only be managed in adulthood.
So it becomes necessary that the early warning signs are detected and dealt with before the ailment becomes acute. Given our shambolic health system, prevention is infinitely preferable to cure. This is where both schools and parents need a change in mindset. So far, children have not been viewed as potential candidates for lifestyle diseases. So there is little or no screening for the risk factors like insulin deficiency, C-reactive protein levels and cholesterol for children. Caught at an early stage, the appropriate lifestyle changes can stave off the onset of many of these diseases. The redoubtable minister for women and child has vowed to take policy decisions to combat this trend towards childhood obesity. It would be interesting to see how a government policy can change eating and exercise habits. Yes, the government can do the usual targeting of ads featuring fast foods and promote commercials on an active lifestyle. But the bulk of the input has to come from someone the child can identify with and whose opinion the child will heed. So it is no use banning junk food at home. Rather the approach should be that all food should be had by children but in the right mix and moderation.
Given the lack of spaces for children in our urban jungles, it is often difficult for them to exercise outdoors. Both schools and communities have to ensure that children have some areas where they can play safely. Also schools need to emphasise the importance of physical education as much as they do academics. These are small measures and will not require a grand budget or policy. The good news is that many private hospitals have been carrying health checks in schools along with counselling on better lifestyles and how to reduce the stress that children suffer from on account of a punishing academic schedule. Unless we begin now on this course correction for children, we may find that we will literally have far too much on our plate to tackle this growing problem.