What can you do if your child is overweight?

More than just 'puppy fat'.
More than just 'puppy fat'. Photo: Shutterstock

Australian obesity is a growing problem (pun intended), but as parents we can implement social and physical changes to help attack this epidemic head-on.

More than just a little 'puppy fat', obesity is defined as an excessive accumulation of fat. The main cause of obesity is an imbalance between energy consumption (what you put into your body) and energy expenditure (the energy you burn off).

Today, more than 60 per cent of Australian adults are obese, which means that more than half of our adult population has a body weight that poses serious personal health risks. This isn't a shrinking statistic: the rates of overweight and obesity amongst adults have doubled over the past two decades, with Australia now ranked as one of the heaviest developed nations.

Another staggering figure: over 27 per cent of Australian children are considered overweight or obese. It's often thought that a child who is overweight or obese will shed the weight as they transition into adulthood, but children who are obese are actually more likely to stay that way throughout their lifetime. Obese children become obese adults.

How do we measure obesity?

For adults, medical professionals use a measure of BMI or Body Mass Index to classify weight risk. This is simply your weight in kilograms, divided by your height in metres squared. Generally, a BMI of 20-25 is considered healthy, a BMI of 25-30 is considered overweight and a BMI over 30 is obese.

To determine if a child is obese, doctors can plot their growth along percentile charts; this helps compare a child's height and weight to that of children of similar age and the same gender.

Why is this problem occurring?

Several key factors have contributed to the dramatic increase in rates of overweight and obesity in the last 30 years, with changes to our social and physical environment being particularly significant.

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Too many of us have easy access to cheap, ready-made, high kilojoule snacks and meals, which offer very little in the way of nutrition – but what many view as 'a lot' in terms of value for money when compared to the price of fresh supermarket ingredients.

With only 5 per cent of children eating the recommended five serves of fruit and veggies daily, you can make sure your child isn't one of them by taking measures such as sticking to what's in season, and opting for the 'imperfect' fruit and veg options at the supermarket – both will be significantly cheaper. Large supermarket chains now also now have free apples and bananas out on offer, so little ones can help themselves to a healthy snack.

The now-standard sedentary office job, and the replacement of manual labour intensive jobs being replaced with machinery are just two physical factors that have contributed to the rise in obesity (Who needs a gardener to push a lawnmower when there's a more efficient ride-on mower?).

Then there's the rise of smart devices, and the inclination to drive or take the lift instead of walking from A to B. Children today are exposed to less school sport, and participate in fewer after-school sporting activities…Collapsing on the couch for two hours of TV before dinner is more likely.

What kind of health problems will we see?

The health issues that occur in children with obesity can include:

  • Psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression surrounding their weight
  • Social isolation
  • Body dissatisfaction, possibly leading to eating disorders
  • Asthma
  • Menstrual abnormalities, such as early onset menstruation
  • Growth issues

Persistence of obesity into adulthood is the most significant long-term consequence. The health-related conditions that can come with obesity in adults are many in number, and include:

  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as back and knee pain (due to the pressure that excess weight places on the muscles and joints)
  • Cardiovascular disease, which can include heart attacks and strokes
  • Sleep apnoea – when breathing momentarily stops or is heavily restricted during sleep
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Problems with fertility

How much physical activity do children need?

Step away from the smart device! While the TV, iPhone and iPad can all serve as convenient babysitters, the obesity risk is greater in children who have an hour or more of screen time each day.

For 0 to 5 year olds, being physically active is crucial for maintaining a healthy weight. Other than when they're asleep, a child in this age range should not remain sedentary or be kept inactive for more than one hour at a time. At least three hours of daily physical activity should be spread throughout the day, be it playing hide-and-seek inside on a rainy day, digging in the sandpit or climbing the jungle gym.

From the age of 5 up to 17 years, children and teens should be doing at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, with a mix of aerobic exercise (such as running and skipping), and muscle strengthening activities (such as balancing games for younger children, and pilates for teenagers).

It can be tough to pull older kids away from the telly and their smart devices, but limiting sedentary activities to two hours a day - and with frequent breaks in between – can be crucial for healthy weight maintenance.

What can we do about the obesity crisis?

We need to attack this problem from all angles. Health problems related to excess weight impose substantial economic burdens on individuals, families and communities. The total direct cost is in the tens of billions.

It is our responsibility to be good role models. Instead of getting takeaway, why not cook a fun, easy and healthy recipe with the kids? Free magazines at the supermarket have great budget-friendly family recipes.

Snack on veggie sticks instead of crisps, drink water when you're thirsty, and enjoy fruit over ice cream for dessert - it's likely that your kids will follow. The same goes with exercise – your child is more likely to get off the couch and go fly a kite or kick a ball if you join them.

If parents are concerned about their child's weight, what can they do?

Aside from being a positive role model at home, if you are genuinely worried about your child's weight, the first person to talk to would be your GP. They can advise you what a healthy weight should be for your child, how much weight should be lost over what period of time, and provide tips for good nutrition and appropriate exercise.

A referral to a dietician and/or an exercise physiologist may be beneficial for providing a family with that extra bit of support during the weight loss journey. If serious health issues are already evident, a referral to a paediatrician may be necessary.

To better the health of our country, we need to start with improving our own health, the health of our families, and ultimately, the health of adult generations to come: our children. Obesity, and the complications that come with it, do not have to be a part of our children's future.

Find a health practitioner near you with Healthshare or view Dr Jill Gamberg's full profile.