Childhood is the time during which food preferences and eating patterns are formed. Sadly, it’s estimated 30% of Australian school children are overweight. Unless intervention occurs early, overweight children will tend to become overweight teenagers, and in turn become overweight adults.
Although weight problems may run in families, it’s often the faulty eating habits of a child’s parents responsible for the overweight condition of children.
All overweight children can lose or control their weight, even though they may never be thin. Interestingly, the weight of the family pet is often a good indicator of the family’s eating habits. The family’s eating habits may be the problem – not their genetics!
No child enjoys being overweight – they usually experience ridicule and teasing from their classmates. This may lead to low self-esteem and avoidance of sporting and social activities. Parents and school canteens both play an important role in encouraging healthy food choices.
Is Your Child Overweight?
Special height-weight charts are used to determine healthy weight ranges for growing children and teenagers. These allow for wide variations in growth patterns, and are more complex than height-weight charts for adults. Child health centres, doctors and dietitians usually have these charts.
However, you should be able to judge fairly easily whether or not your child is overweight. If they have excessive flab, particularly around their stomach and chest areas, it’s safe to assume your child is overweight.
Strategies For Weight Control
It’s not necessary for overweight children and growing teenagers to lose all their excess weight in a short period of time. Simply keeping their weight steady will effectively result in a loss of fatty tissue as they ‘grow into’ their weight over time.
An adolescent gains about 1kg for every centimetre of growth. If an overweight adolescent can maintain a stable weight, then every centimetre they grow will be equivalent to 1kg of weight loss.
The following guidelines for different degrees of overweight may be useful.
- Moderately Overweight (2.5kg):
- Action: Keep weight stable for 6-12 months.
- Quite Overweight (6-10kg):
- Action: Lose 3kg gradually (.5kg /week), then maintain weight for 6-12 months.
- Obese (11-20kg):
- Action: Lose 7-10 kg gradually, then maintain weight for 6-12 months.
Overweight children and teenagers can easily tolerate a moderate reduction in calories. This usually means having slightly smaller sized meals and cutting out high fat, high sugar snacks and drinks between meals.
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Children should avoid crash and fad diets at all costs. Such inadequate food intake, even for short periods, may compromise their growth and development. Crash diets encourage unhealthy attitudes towards food and their own self-image – a significant problem which could potentially lead to eating disorders.
Why Children Need Maximum Nutrition
- For each kilogram of body weight, a 5 year old child (about 18kg) requires twice as much protein, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and vitamin C as a 70kg man.
- The same 5 year old child needs just as much calcium and iron as a 25 year old man.
As the child’s stomach capacity is much smaller than that of an adult, food eaten by children needs to be fairly nutrient-dense in order to obtain their full quota of required nutrients. Therefore, there’s little room for ’empty calories’ or high fat/high sugar foods such as chocolate, soft drinks, lollies, pies and cakes. These foods fill the stomach and supply excessive calories – without supplying the necessary nutrients.
Importance of Exercise
- Overweight children and teenagers may not gain excessive weight from overeating, but rather from under-exercising. Children and teenagers need to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day, eg. skipping, cycling, walking, playing in the park, training with their sports team.
- Increasing physical activity levels during teen years and later years of childhood may be important in preventing obesity.
- Weight loss improves your child’s ability to exercise. Young people experience an improved self-image when they participate in normal sporting activities.
- Television can be fattening! Many children (and adults) watch more than 20 hours of TV per week. The more TV watched, the more likely a child will become overweight. Watching TV reduces the amount of time they could be exercising and playing. Furthermore, the food advertisements on TV encourage the consumption of fatty snacks and development of poor food habits.
The school canteen plays an important role in reinforcing health messages from the classroom and home. Many school canteens are now providing healthier foods than in the past.
Contact your school canteen to see if they’re offering low fat, low sugar and high fibre foods. If not, contact the school parent group or school principal to encourage a healthy change.
Food Hints & Suggestions
- Use butter and margarine sparingly.
- Limit the sale of high fat meat, pies, sausage rolls and sausages, chips.
- Fill pita (Pocket Bread) with baked beans, cheese and salad.
- Try pita bread as a pizza base.
- Use more salad vegetables and fruits, e.g. fresh fruit salad.
- Fill sandwiches with low-fat cheeses (cottage or ricotta), baked beans, lean meat, chicken, fish.
- Use low-fat fruit yoghurts.
- Vegetable and bean soups.
- Baked potato in jacket with toppings.
- Frozen diluted fruit juice or fruit pieces.
School Lunch Ideas
A variety of school lunches can be prepared at home. Try some of the following ideas:
- Use pita pockets as bread. Fill them with different foods that won’t fall out of the sides, eg. curried egg and salad; baked beans, lettuce and grated cheese; ricotta cheese with sultanas.
- Make sandwiches using wholemeal fruit bread.
- Add variety to sandwich fillings, eg. banana and ricotta cheese; tuna/salmon with lettuce.
- Place salads in a sealed container.
Hints For Parents
- An overweight child or teenager needs support and encouragement from parents and grandparents. Tell them their efforts are worthwhile. If other members of the family are overweight, devise a friendly competition to help encourage one another. Weight control is a family affair.
- If your child isn’t hungry, don’t try to force-feed them or promote the habit of ‘leaving a clean plate’. Eating will soon lose its pleasure. Your efforts to prepare a meal can still be appreciated despite the meal remaining unfinished. Allow your child to leave the table without fuss. If a very small amount of food is eaten, ensure desserts and snacks aren’t available.
- Children are great imitators. Thus, adults should always set a good example. You can’t expect a child to eat a sandwich of lean meat and salad if mum and dad are eating sausage rolls or a pie.
- Avoid the temptation of high-fat and sugary snack foods by keeping them out of the house. A chocolate bar in the fridge can be too difficult to resist. Keep the fruit bowl well stocked, and possibly allow one snack treat each week.
- Don’t prepare separate meals for your overweight child. This will only enhance their feeling of being different, and be interpreted as a form of punishment. Healthy meals should be enjoyed by the entire family. It’s only necessary to control the quantities eaten by your overweight child.
- Avoid desserts which are high in fat and/or sugar. Fresh fruit is an ideal way to finish a meal; or try some low-fat desserts from our Recipe section.
- TV can be fattening. It discourages exercise and encourages the consumption of high-calorie snack foods. Parents and children should read the TV guide and agree on the programs to be viewed that day. Limit viewing to one hour per day, or just a few hours on the weekend.
- Make exercise a fun, family affair. Try a bike ride, a day at the beach, bushwalking. Make it enjoyable for all!
- Teenagers demand their independence and usually like to have some control over their food choices. Be careful that your advice and encouragement doesn’t become ‘nagging,’ which deprives them of their choices.
- Keep a diary of your child’s eating and exercise habits to help identify problem areas. A dietitian can be useful if a third party is required to lay down some ground rules. Children tend not to heed their parents’ good advice.
- Encourage them to eat breakfast. A quick calorie-controlled cereal with low-fat milk or baked beans on toast will help support concentration throughout the school day. Skipping breakfast usually results in eating high-calorie snacks at recess and lunch.
- Ensure pocket money is being spent wisely – not on high-calorie snacks from supermarkets and corner shops.
- Provide cool water to satisfy thirst. Soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters provide ’empty calories’. Sugar-free soft drinks and cordials are widely available and well accepted by young people.