Among younger children, the rates of obesity are alarming, with one in ten children aged four to five years now classed as obese.
National records have been kept in the UK since the mid 1990’s and these show that one in five 10 to 11-year olds are obese. If overweight children are also included, the figures show that around one in three children are overweight or obese – that’s over four million children and within a decade these figures have more than doubled.
Research suggests that if this is left untreated, up to 85% of these children will become obese as adults. Weight gain occurs when we take in more calories from food and drink than we use up in our day-to-day activities. Obesity arises from a combination of factors, reduced levels of activity and access to cheap, energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and drinks.
Weight issues can affect a child at any age, with studies showing many parents don’t recognise when their child is overweight and so they don’t take any action. However, given the right kind of support, children who are obese can achieve a healthy weight as they grow, and can maintain this into adulthood if healthy habits are learned and continued. Obesity is common in all social classes, although it is twice as common among those families in the most deprived areas of the UK compared to the least deprived.
There are both short and long-term consequences of obesity in childhood. In the short term, obesity can cause problems with bone health and breathing difficulties, and can affect social and psychological well-being. Children with obesity problems may also be bullied and may have self-esteem issues. Obese children are also more likely to become obese as adults, with increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, as well as joint and muscle problems.
We all know that good nutrition is essential to children’s growth and development, and for many children, some small changes to food and activity levels mean that over the growing years, slowing down the rate of weight gain, rather than losing weight per se, will help to achieve a healthy weight for their height.
Overweight children often know they have a weight problem, and they need to feel supported and in control, so it is important to listen to a child if you or others have any concerns about their weight.
For children who are already struggling with severe obesity problems, more specific help may be needed, and this should be discussed with a family doctor, who may refer a child to a specific healthy weight programme, led by expert practitioners. Typically, these programmes are family-based and include nutrition, physical activity and behaviour components.
The key to achieving healthy weight is:
- Good role models – eat healthy meals with your child and have fun doing physical activities together;
- Encouraging a total of 60 minutes of physical activity a day and limit the amount of sedentary time;
- Eating child-sized portions. A good tip is to avoid adult-sized plates and start with smaller portions. Let your child ask for more if he or she is still hungry;
- Choosing healthy meals, snacks and drinks such as water or milk;
- More sleep and less screen time.
Overall, the best way is for children to achieve a healthy weight from a young age and developing a lifelong love of good food as part of a healthy lifestyle.