Tuesday, 2 September 2014

How to tackle childhood obesity

By Amanda Ursell

On holiday in Italy this summer what struck me the most wasn’t the over-sized handbags and under-sized bikinis on the beach, but the size of the children.

While piccola toned mammas promenaded along the sand it was striking just how many weighty children, both young and older, were struggling along behind.

In just one generation traditionally ‘slimmer’ nations such as Italy appear to be catching up with our statistics (one in three children under 15 in the UK is now overweight or obese). Excess snacks and sugar-loaded drinks between albeit homemade (and delicious) meals are some of the main culprits.

These unnecessary calories play a major role in our childhood weight issues in the UK, but we can also factor in over-sized portions at mealtimes, a reliance on takeaways and ready meals and a tendency for parents to reward, cajole, bribe and comfort offspring with treats.

So what can we do, when the food environment and social climate of child-led parenting is everywhere we look?

We can encourage the food industry to maintain its current push to reduce sugar, shrink serving sizes and market healthy choices more positively.

But the bottom line is that as parents and carers we have to take control of the what, when, where and how much we feed our children. We need to set examples of good eating habits ourselves, we need to learn to say ‘no’ and face the tantrums that come with initial refusal to further fuel the over-indulgence line.

This isn’t easy, but then breaking any entrenched behaviour isn’t easy, whether it’s giving up smoking, giving up a friendship that has turned bad or giving up an inactive lifestyle.

As a life coach friend of mine once told me: ‘People can either change their lives and feed their kids better, Amanda… or not.’

Once you own up to and embrace the consequences of the ‘or not’ option, which include being complicit in setting your children up for furred arteries, early onset of type 2 diabetes, fallen foot arches, potentially poor self-esteem in teenage years and adulthood, raised blood pressure and increased risk of stroke, then the short-term aggro and hassle attached to taking action and being the ‘baddie’ for a few months pales into insignificance.

I’m strict with my children. I tried being reasonable, allowing dinner in front of the telly one day a week, having biscuits in the house believing they’d know when enough was enough, taking them shopping with me thinking they wouldn’t try to bludgeon me into falling for the special offer on family-size chocolate bars, but it didn’t work.

They’re kids and I’m the adult and now I behave like one. I plan meals, try to cook them myself (or when there isn’t much time ‘assemble’ them - hummus, pitta, chopped carrots and so on), and I insist on sitting at the table, regardless of what they are doing in the minutes before mealtimes.

They often kick off, they often say I’m mean, they often probably wish I wasn’t so flipping strict, but if I’m not in charge of what my children eat now and don’t try to introduce them to a variety of meals, give them vegetables, feed them fruit and insist on trying things quite a few times before declaring they don’t like them… then who will?

Combine this approach with being active whenever we can and, at the moment at least, I can say my kids are on the right side of the weight line.

Who knows how they’ll live their lives when they’re older? They may decide to feast on burgers and chips for ever, but that will be their decision and by that time hopefully memories of home will prevail and they’ll remember that I did at least try to do my bit and that sometimes mums do know best.

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