The international Task Force on Obesity estimates that 300 million people around the world are obese and 155 million of them are children. The task force's conservative estimates suggest that obesity levels will continue to rise in the early 21st century, with severe health consequences, unless urgent action is taken. The World Health Organisation projects that by 2015, the obesity scale in the United Arab Emirates may hit 45 per cent in females and 25 per cent in males. The health consequences of obesity include type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, gallbladder disease and some forms of cancer, just to name a few.
While these diseases take years to develop, families can act now to protect their children against overweight and obesity. A committee of experts addressing the prevention, assessment and treatment of overweight and obese children suggested that simple behavioural changes in eating, physical activity and recreation can be effective. Research-based evidence indicates that sweetened drinks such as soda, punch, fruit drinks andcocktails constitute the primary source of added sugar in the daily diet of children. Each 12-oz serving of soda contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Most children do not consume enough fruit and vegetables. Although data directly relating children's intake of fruits and vegetables with risk of obesity and long-term weight gain are limited, studies of adults have suggested that increasing intake of fruits and vegetables may reduce long-term risk of obesity and weight gain. The most popular snacks among children include potato crisps, biscuits, ice cream, sweets, popcorn, cake and carbonated drinks. Snacks tend to be higher in fat and calorie content than meals. In 2005, Dr Elsie Taveras of Harvard University and her team discovered in a study of more than 14,00 girls and boys, that a greater consumption of fried foods eaten away from home was evident for heavier adolescents.
Many children, particularly adolescent females, tend to skip breakfast but consume more food later in the day, and this pattern has increased in recent years. Overweight children and adolescents have been shown to be more likely to skip breakfast and eat a few large meals each day than the leaner children. Researchers have examined many aspects of diet and physical activity, but some of the strongest evidence of a behavioural risk for obesity in children points to the impact of television.
When children spend the major part of their day watching television or videos or playing computer games, they miss out on physically engaging activities, and chances are they will eat in front of the screen. How can children be protected from being overweight and obese? Parents can start introducing small, simple changes in the home. As a parent, discuss with the children the importance of the changes you wish to make and engage them in the decision-making process. Slowly cut down on the unhealthy foods while you gradually replace them with healthy choices. Provide more fruit and vegetables for meals and snacks.
If your child is used to unhealthy snacks such as potato crisps and soda, agree on a day you wish to start implementing changes. Provide only half of the snack items you are trying to eliminate along with a new and healthy snack choice such as fresh fruit or low-fat yoghurt. On each day thereafter, increase the amount of the healthy choices while you cut down on the unhealthy ones. In the same manner, start eating more home-made meals while you reduce the frequency of eating out in restaurants. If your adolescents are breakfast skippers, prepare attractive healthy breakfasts and encourage them to eat before heading out to school. Make available whole grains such as brown bread, whole grain cereal, nuts, low-fat yoghurt etc. These foods, along with fruits and vegetables, provide fibre which is effective in promoting a sense of feeling full.
Invest in time to play with the younger children or take them out to the park when the weather permits. Enrol your children in physically active recreation like sport, dance, martial arts etc. Keep in mind the child's preference and personality. Be a good role model by being physically active yourself. Keep a box in the car and in the home filled with active toys like softballs, Frisbees, beach toys for playing in the sand, jump ropes etc. You will be ready whenever the opportunity arises. Do not use physical activity as a punishment.
Epidemiological and experimental evidence support less television viewing as a major preventive measure for the reduction of childhood obesity. Allow your children to choose specific TV programmes and wait until the show is on before you let them turn on the television. Limit viewing time to two hours of quality programming per day. Designate certain days of the week as TV-free days. Avoid using TV as an object of background noise, reward or punishment. Talk to your children about health and how important it is to eat healthy and to be physically active. Set a good example and be conscious that your children will want to do what they see you do.
Dr Serah Theuri is an assistant professor of Clinical Nutrition at Department of Natural Science and Public Health, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi