The sight of overweight or obese children and teens in our urban centres is no longer strange. However, more parents are now concerned by those extra kilos which put their children in danger of developing serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.
Tomson Nowamani, a child development expert, says obese children might also have emotional issues to deal with (such as low self-esteem), and may be teased, bullied, or rejected by peers which leads to more problems like depression or substance abuse among others.
“And because overweight children tend to experience precocious puberty, they will be more sexually mature than their peers leading to behavioral problems and stigma,” explains Nowamani.
How to tell if your child is overweight
Dr Edward Mugisha says doctors use weight-for-length charts to determine how a baby’s weight compares with his or her length. Any child who falls at or above the 85th percentile may be considered overweight.
For children above two years, doctors use Body Mass Index (BMI) height and weight measurements to estimate their body fat. Once your child’s BMI is known, it can be plotted on a standard BMI chart. Children whose BMI falls below the 5th percentile are underweight, those at the 5th and less than the 85th percentile have normal weight, those at the 85th and below 95th percentiles are overweight and those at or above the 95th percentile are obese.
Dietician Regina Nantege says obesity is mainly due to diet, lifestyle and genetics. “The high calorie snack options are the biggest contribution.
Typically family meals are well balanced but parents tend to offer children candy, biscuits, soda between meals and it gets worse during school days especially for day scholars.
It is common that children are served fast foods such as French fries or burgers on their way home as they take hours in traffic,” she remarks.
However, genetics too play a role in what children weigh. “Endocrine problems, genetic syndromes, and medicines can be linked to excessive weight gain. A child’s risk of obesity greatly increases if one or both parents are overweight or obese,” adds Dr Mugisha.
There is no one size fits all solution to obesity in children and Dr Mugisha stresses that unless directed by a doctor weight loss is not necessarily the treatment. The goal should be to slow or stop weight gain, allowing your child to grow into their ideal weight.
To do this effectively, there should be a lifestyle change for the entire family.
“Replace fast food with a variety of nutrient-packed foods from all the basic food groups in proper portions, and make family meals a priority.
Encourage an active lifestyle that includes daily activities like taking a walk, riding a bike instead of watching TV or playing video games. Healthy habits start at home,” Dr Mugisha stresses.
Nowamani urges parents to lead by example, so that their children can model their lifestyle. “If your children see you eating your vegetables, being active, and limiting your TV time, they will not be reluctant to do it themselves.
Similarly try and educate them about the impact of the foods they eat on their bodies and general health. More children will want to eat foods that make their muscles stronger,” he suggests.
Dietician Regina Nantege says as a parent, you should make small, easy changes over time. Start with some new approaches to nutrition and physical activity that the whole family is really willing to try. For example, adding a salad to dinner every night or swapping out soda for fresh juice.
Control portion sizes, a regular serving should be the size of your fist. You can also use smaller plates which will make your portions look bigger.
To minimise the temptation of second and third helpings, serve food on individual plates, instead of putting the serving dishes on the table.