By Ines Astudillo (APD)
We well know that childhood overweight and obesity is a concerning health problem in Australia. Up to 1 in 4 school-aged children in New South Wales are overweight or obese. Carrying excess body fat increases the risk of developing ongoing health problems such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. It can also come with negative social and psychological consequences such as bullying and low self esteem issues.
Overweight and obesity can be a sensitive issue and discussion of weight in relation to children needs to be handled with care. Parents have a huge load of responsibilities, juggling work, finances, their own health, relationships, life, and raising little people. Understandably for some parents, their child’s weight issue can be overwhelming, confronting and can leave them feeling like they are failing. Clearly, with the known influences of our changing society on obesity, and obesity being a worldwide problem, parents are not the sole bearers of responsibility.
So how do I know if my child is overweight or obese?With an increasingly overweight and obese society, it can be difficult to work out whether a child is overweight when using visual comparisons. A useful screening tool is the Body Mass Index (BMI)-for-age percentile which is based on a child’s height and weight, and is sex specific. This tool is a reliable indicator of body fat and is helpful to identify a possible weight issue; however, interpretation requires care and further in-depth assessment by a health professional such as a GP or dietitian.
Does my child need to lose weight?Each child is different and the approach to weight management should be individualised to the child. Although this is a weight issue, in general weight and weight loss should not be the focus. The take home message for children and families is the importance of adopting healthy lifestyle habits for a healthy weight for the long term. That is learning how to eat healthily and get plenty of physical activity as a lifestyle change, rather than trying to lose weight with unsustainable ‘dieting’ and excessive restrictions.
What steps can I take to start better lifestyle habits? Seeking the support of a health professional may be the first step to assess your child properly. Here are some questions that may be helpful to start a health focus:
- Is your child due for a growth progress check-up?
- Is your child eating nutritious foods that promote healthy growth and development?
- Are they getting at least one hour of physical activity every day?
- Do they drink enough water?
Here are 3 tips for healthier lifestyle habits:
1. Create an environment at home that makes a healthy food choice easy - Stock the fridge and cupboards with nutritious foods from the 5 food groups (refer to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating for more information). If you choose to offer ‘discretionary’ or optional foods, buy these only sometimes (less than once per week) and in small amounts or packets.
2. Pack a healthy lunch box:
* A piece of fruit and a calcium rich food e.g. milk, yoghurt, cheese or alternative
* Vegetables e.g. cut up sticks of celery, capsicum, cucumber, carrot, cherry tomatoes
* a healthy extra e.g. healthy homemade vegetable muffin
3. Offer food and lead by example - It makes sense that the research shows that parents are the most effective agents of change. Parents do have the ability to change and shape children’s eating and physical activity behaviours. Certainly, children cannot be made to eat foods that they do not want to. However, children model behaviour and so a parent can offer healthy foods and show their child what to do with the food, how to eat it and enjoy it. Remember it can take over 20 times of offering a food before the child can interact with and accept the food, and finally eat it.
What can I do?
Make an appointment with Ines to discuss changes that you and your family can implement to help your child develop healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Ines prefers to see parents/carers alone initially.