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Many parents do not think of the long term problems and effects that obesity will have on their child and do not sit back and try and help their child to fight it.

The past 30 to 40 years have seen marked changes in the lifestyle and diets of Western civilization. A growing concern among parents as a result of these changes is child obesity. Eleven per cent of children under the age of 6 are obese in South Africa. What are the causes? Is it a disease? Can you do anything to help your child or prevent them from becoming obese?

While your child may appear to be healthy, the negative effects of obesity are usually only seen later in adult life, eliciting itself in forms like diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. Not to mention the psychological distress a child may suffer at the hands of bullies which will detrimentally affect their self esteem.

What is Obesity
Obesity is increased body weight caused by excessive accumulation of fat. When your child is young it is difficult to determine if they are obese or just retaining “puppy fat”. A body mass index (BMI) measurement is also not conclusive in children. You’ll have to do comparative testing with other children your child’s age. It is best to speak to your GP to interpret the tests. The effects of obesity can cause type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, depression and other psychological disorders.

Why are Children Overweight
Contrary to popular belief not all children are obese because of overeating. Genetics and underlying medical problems account for a percentage of obesity in children. In fact, studies indicate that children are more likely to be obese if their parents are obese. This however might not necessarily be solely because of genetics, but because families share eating habits and lifestyle too. Most children put on weight because of a combination of unhealthy eating, lifestyle and lack of exercise. Contemporary standards of living cater for fast foods and inactivity which promotes obesity. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey for the UK in 2000 showed that 40% of boys and 60% of girls do not get the recommended hour of activity per day.

Genetic Causes of Obesity
The following causes of obesity are a result of disorders relating to fluctuations in hormones:

  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Hypercortisolism
  • Primary hyperinsulinism
  • Pseudohypoparathyroidism
  • Acquired hypothalamic

These genetic disorders also cause obesity:

  • Prader-Willi
  • Alström
  • Börjeson-Forssman-Lehman
  • Turner’s
  • Familial lipodystrophy
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann
  • Sotos
  • Weaver
  • Ruvalcaba

One of the reasons for obesity is poor diet which includes highly processed foods, foods high in calories and fast foods. Even eating habits influence obesity; constant eating throughout the day as opposed to sitting down for meals a few times a day helps enable over weight. While in and of itself not a problem, but foods usually used for constant eating are things like chips, cookies and breads. To lose weight is not only a matter of diet. If a child is to lose weight they must eat healthily, change eating habits and increase exercise. If you are concerned about your child’s health make sure their foods are nutritious and varied.

Starch is bulky and rich in complex a carbohydrate which makes them a great source of energy for your children. These foods include bread, potatoes, pasta and rice, but remember if your child doesn’t use this energy their body will store the food as fat for use later. Low fat foods like chocolate, biscuits, sweets and cakes should not be indulged constantly. Replace these with fresh fruit, nuts or crackers, while allowing the occasional sweet. Remember these are okay in moderation. Instead of frying foods try to grill or bake them. Foods like sausages, fish fingers and burgers have lower fat content when baked or grilled as opposed to fried, which often requires extra oils. Fizzy drinks are high in sugar content and should be replaced with fruit juices or sugar free-alternatives. Wholegrain or wheat biscuit cereals should be preferred over sugar coated, chocolate cereals etc. A piece of fruit is also a good complement with this sort breakfast.

Eating Habits
Your kids will follow your example so I’m afraid this means healthy eating for the whole family. After all, it is the family who will have to deal with the complications of obesity in later adult life such as depression or diabetes. Families should sit down and have regular meals together as opposed to eating separately throughout the day. Do not eat while watching TV. Concentration that should be given to chewing properly is diverted to the television. Chewing properly will give your kids’ time to recognize that they’re full. Tell your kids to eat when they’re hungry not out of habit so do not make them “clean their plates” when eating; only they know when they’ve had enough. Do not stock foods that are high in fat and sugar. Make finger foods available, but these should be healthy. It also helps to get your kids involved in preparing the food as it will enable them to enjoy it more.

Physical Activity
Helping your child to use the energy that their body is storing can help reduce the risks of obesity. Exercise such as walking to places that are close to home instead of driving there can help give your child the recommended daily exercise. Take your child to a park to play with the dogs or kick around a ball. You can make exercise a treat by taking them to different places like ice skating or hiking. Enable your child to exercise by doing things with them and showing by example. Perhaps get your child involved in a sports club or local class or some sort.

Keeping it off
Experts recommend that you should not get your child to lose the weight if they are obese, but maintain it and let them grow into it as they get taller. They should only ever lose weight with medical advice. Remember that your child is your responsibility and you can help them to overcome obesity if you set a good example.

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