With one in four Australian school kids overweight or obese, Sydney nutritionist Lisa Guy explains the role of the parent in the fight against childhood obesity.
Obesity has become one of the most significant threats to the health of Australian kids. Over the last 20 years obesity rates in children have risen at an alarming rate in Australia and in many countries around the world (1-3).
In their most recent review of children's health, the NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity exposed many 'questionable' eating habits in Australian children and reported a rapidly increasing prevalence of childhood obesity. According to the study, almost a quarter of Australian children aged between 5 to 16 years old are now overweight or obese (4).
Equally concerning is that diseases such as type-2 diabetes, once seen only in adults, are now being seen in growing numbers in children. A significant number of these children are already showing signs of health problems caused by being overweight and having a poor diet. Precursors to cardiovascular and liver disease, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, high insulin levels and fatty liver deposits have been detected in an increasing number of children.
A major cause of childhood obesity and declining children's health in Australia is dietary-related. Australian children are getting bigger and unhealthier as a result of their growing reliance on energy-dense junk foods that invariably include soft drinks, fast foods and processed snacks. These all tend to be high in saturated fats, sugars, salt and low in fibre.
In one sense, bucking the current trend can be as simple as steering children away from a diet dominated by these unhealthy, energy-dense junk foods and encouraging kids to be more active. However, children are subjected to several influences that affect their food choices and preferences: family, friends, and the media, among others.
Children must learn to listen to their bodies, to stop eating when they have had sufficient food to eat and to eat when they are hungry.
Television commercials in particular have a powerful effect on the types of foods commonly desired, bought and consumed by children (5). Children are constantly being bombarded with advertisements portraying unhealthy food and soft drinks as positive desirable choices, reinforcing children's bad dietary habits. The majority of these advertisements targeting children are for food products containing high amounts of saturated fats, sugars, and salt and foods that are low in dietary fibre (6,7).
Parents' efforts to encourage healthy eating are being undermined by unhealthy food advertising. Parents need to protect their children by helping them become educated young consumers making healthy dietary choices. We are at the stage now where it is crucial that something is done to improve our children's health and eating habits. If we continue down this path the future implications for the health of our children will be frightening.
Prevention is the best cure
The best place to start addressing this problem is at home, with education and guidance from parents. It's while we're young that we are most susceptible to acquiring and learning attitudes towards food, diet and nutrition. Parents play a principal role helping their children develop positive attitudes towards food and healthy eating habits early on in their lives. There is evidence that establishing healthy eating patterns, as a child will increase the likelihood of these patterns continuing throughout their lives.
10 top dietary to help kids maintain a healthy weight
- Limit processed foods that are high in sugars, salt and saturated and trans-fats. These foods are usually void of nutrients and fibre and promote weight gain when eaten to excess. Choose wholesome unprocessed foods in their natural state that are high in fibre and essential nutrients.
- Avoid giving kids soft drink, as it can lead to tooth erosion and weight gain. Water should be their first drink of choice. Remember a can of soft drink can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar, phosphoric acid, caffeine and other nasty chemicals.
- Include plenty of fibre rich foods in your child’s diet such as wholegrain breads and cereals, fresh fruit and veggies and legumes. Including these types of foods in your child’s diet will help balance blood sugar levels and promote a healthy weight.
- Limit foods that are high in saturated and trans-fats. Children should not be put on strict diets or rigid fat restriction diets. Fats are an essential part of a child’s diet, however it must be the right type of fat. Eating these types of fats will promote weight gain and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Include beneficial unsaturated fats (especially omega-3 fats) in your child's diet, found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. These fats are an essential part of a child’s diet, needed for their growth and development. Moderate consumption of these healthy fats as part of a well balanced diet, will help your child maintain a healthy weight.
- Pack your kids lunch boxes with nutritious foods and snacks such as wholesome homemade muffins or whole meal scones, fruit, yoghurt, dips with rice crackers and veggie sticks, mini frittatas, nori rolls and tasty salads and sandwiches. Don’t give your kids lunch money, as they will spend it on junk food.
- Include good quality protein rich foods with each meal. Protein foods have a low GI and help stabilise blood sugar levels, help create a feeling of satiety (fullness) and prevent children from overeating. Add some form of protein in your child’s lunch box such as tuna, chicken, low-fat cheese or egg on sandwiches; individual frittatas hummus with crisp breads; or a tub of low-fat yoghurt.
- Use healthy low-fat cooking methods such as steaming, light stir-frying with a little olive oil, grilling or baking. Avoid deep-frying or cooking with vegetable oils.
- Don't over fill your child's plate with food. Offer smaller servings and have more available if they want it. Children must learn to listen to their bodies, to stop eating when they have had sufficient food to eat and to eat when they are hungry.
- Offer your child smaller, regular meals. Children should eat three meals a day with two snacks. Regularly skipping meals could be detrimental to your child’s growth and development. If your child reaches a point of excessive hunger it will trigger them to overeat, usually foods containing high amounts of sugar and fat. Having smaller, regular meals will also help your child lose weight by speeding up their metabolism and giving them plenty of energy to take part in physical activities. Make sure your child starts the day with a good nutritious breakfast.
1. Magarey AM, Daniels LA & Boulton TJC. Prevalence of overweight and obesity in Australian children and adolescents: reassessment of 1985 and 1995 data against new standard international definitions. Medical Journal of Australia 2001; 174: 561-4.
2. Wake M, Lazarus R, Hasketh R & Waters E. Are Australian Children getting fatter? Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 1999; 35-47.
3. Booth ML, Wake M, Armstrong T, Chey T, Hesketh & Mathur S. The epidemiology of overweight and obesity among Australian children and adolescents, 1995-1997. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2001; 25: 162-9.
4. NSW Health. NSW Schools Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey (SPANS) 2004: Summary Report. NSW Centre for overweight and obesity. 2006; 20.
5. Chagnon YC, Rankinen T, Snyder EE, et al. The human obesity gene map: the 2002 update. Obesity Research 2003; 11: 313-367.
6. Dollman J, Olds T, Norton K & Stuart D. The evaluation of fitness and fatness in 10-11 year old Australian children: Changes in distributional characteristics between 1985 and 1997. Pediatric Exercise Science 1999; 11: 108-21.
7. Law M. Dietary fat and adult diseases and the implications for childhood nutrition: an epidemiological approach. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000; 72: 1291S-1296S.
Extract from My Goodness, written by Sydney based nutritionist/naturopath and mum Lisa Guy, who specialises in childhood nutrition. My Goodness features recipes, practical tips and information on managing children with food allergies, intolerances, diabetes and ADHA. Published by Jane Curry Publishing.