With 1 in 5 kids obese and diseases such as type 2 diabetes striking at a younger and younger age, parents need to be worried. For the first time, we may see our children die at an earlier age than us, due to these increasing health risks. Dr Sally Norton, Consultant Weight-Loss expert and founder of Vavista.com – Lose weight …Live life …DIET-FREE! gives her advice, based on years of research around weight-loss and dieting….
As both a doctor and a mother of two, keeping my children healthy is my main priority…and obesity is an ever-increasing threat. I am constantly trawling the latest scientific research to find out how we can best protect our children (and help ourselves at the same time). Last week I shared some worrying statistics with you about how our children are struggling in this environment where junk food is available at every turn. This week I want to share my thoughts on the most important areas to focus on if we are to protect our kids from the obesity epidemic…
DON’T DEMONISE OR DENY
Making sweets, cakes or other less healthy food just available as ‘treats’ or ‘rewards’ means that children will associate these unhealthy foods with being good. Conversely, banning foods just makes them want them more (same with adults, to be honest). Don’t make an issue out of eating – if kids want sweets from time to time, they can have them…not as a treat, just as part of a well-balanced diet.
Instead we have to make it more convenient, easier, cheaper or better in other ways to choose healthy over unhealthy. Mums have to be psychologists rather than dictators!
MORE FRUIT AND VEG
The fruit and veg recommendations have increased from 5-a-day to at least 7 and preferably 10! Yet our kids are barely managing to reach 5. Teenage girls are the worst, eating an average of 2.7 portions a day.
Cooking from scratch gives you the opportunity to sneak in vegetables – blending before adding to a casserole, making a cake using fruit or veg (banana, carrot or parsnip cakes last just 5 minutes in my house) or juicing for drinks and then freezing as ice-lollies are just a few ways to increase the intake.
CUT BACK ON SUGAR
Sugar is making up an increasingly large part of our kids diets and yet it has no nutritional value whatsoever and may be more responsible than fat for the obesity epidemic and multiple health problems. Recent recommendations from the World Health Organisation suggest 6 teaspoons of sugar a day is more than enough. So, gradually cut down on the sugar consumed by all in the family and without anyone necessarily noticing, you will be reducing their sweet tooth. Look carefully at labels to find hidden sugar and don’t forget about drinks….
A third of that sugar in our kids’ diets comes from sugary soft drinks and fruit juice. More and more evidence is mounting that fizzy drinks are doing nothing to help the weight and health issues of our children – and of us. Yet, in California 62% of 12-17 year olds and 41% of children aged 2-11 drink at least one soda or other sweetened beverage every day…and in the UK we aren’t too far behind. And ‘diet-versions’ are no better – evidence shows that they may also be associated with weight gain and health issues.
A tax on sugary drinks has been recommended in the UK by doctors at the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and there are calls in the US to ban fizzy drinks from schools. We should do the same. However, one year after these recommendations were made, nothing has happened.
Although generally better than fizzy drinks, fruit juices may contain just as much sugar and are best avoided, or diluted and drunk in moderation. Far better to get kids used to drinking water and having a piece of fruit alongside it. If water is perceived as the normal thirst-quencher from an early age, they won’t develop a sweet tooth for drinks and are more likely to keep up the good habit for life.
BEWARE WHEN SHOPPING
Sweets at check-outs are the obvious one but a recent study from psychologist Brian Wansink gives another example of how the food industry tries to manipulate our poor children (and us, as a result) when we go shopping. The team found that cereals marketed at kids were placed lower down on shelves than those for adults – so that kids could easily spot and ask for these high-sugar breakfasts. In addition, the eyes of the cartoon characters on the boxes were angled to make contact with the children..and such eye contact led to increased feelings of trust in the brand. Clever – but as parents we must ensure we aren’t duped by this and many other ‘marketing manipulation’ techniques.
GET THEM EXERCISING
We all know that exercise is good for your general fitness – but it has so many other benefits for kids.
For teens, under pressure from peers, media images and self-awareness, it encourages them to focus on health rather than appearance and builds friend groups with healthy-minded kids rather than the types who will sit in front of computer games all day. Exercise keeps them busy with less time for mischief, and wears them out so they sleep well at night. Like adults, kids benefit from the stress relief of exercise and fresh air.
The NHS recommendations are that children under five should be physically active for 3 hours a day. For older kids of 5-18 at least 60 minutes (one hour) of aerobic activity are recommended every day – this means your child is working hard enough to raise their heart rate and break a sweat.
So how? Well, a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests that the amount of exercise we do, impacts on the amount our kids do too. However, they showed that the activity levels of mothers were very low – just over half undertook 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity at least once a week despite UK Government recommendations of 150 minutes per week. Any of us who have had young children may not be surprised – sometimes it is a struggle simply to get through the day!
But, this study shows that if we keep active, we are encouraging our children to be more active too – and that has to be good for all of us.
CUT THE SCREEN TIME
A constant struggle, as we all know. However, it is not just the fact that our kids aren’t getting enough exercise if they are sat in front of screens all day. A study of food advertising in 13 countries across 5 continents found that a child who was watching 2 hours of television per day may see 28-84 food advertisements per week – food with high energy density and poor nutritional value. Our children are tempted by food at every turn and the increasingly inactive life dominated by TV and computer games means their health is really at risk. What’s more, too much screen time can affect quality of sleep….
GET THEM TO BED!
You may not realise but sleep is a much under-rated way of losing weight! Several studies have shown a link between poor sleeping and obesity – and it isn’t just that obese people sleep more badly. A bad night’s sleep can affect the food choices you make the next day, increasing your calorie intake.
It appears this may hold true for children too, with a recent study from University College, London, showing that 16 month-old children who slept for less than 10 hours each day ate about 100kcal more per day than children who slept for more than 13 hours – despite the fact that in early life parents make most of the decisions about when and how much their children eat.
Switching off screens for an hour before bed, getting into a pre-bed routine with perhaps a bath, a milky drink and a book and getting to bed on time are more important for our kids’ health than we thought.
I loved the recommendations just published by Dr Khristopher Kaliebe, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the New Orleans School of Medicine. They really distill all of the above into 3 very basic family-oriented “rules” of living to promote physical and mental health for children and parents.
1. Eat Food – Not too Much, Mostly Plants. Eating natural, unprocessed food (not chips, sodas and fast food) eliminates the need to count calories, or worry about carbs, fat, protein and vitamins.
2. Get Up and Move. Children as well as parents need to find excuses to move whenever possible.
3. Honour Silence. Sensory overload from gaming, advertising, TV and electronics crowds out important things such as family, sleep, and other interests.
I couldn’t agree more.