Across the world, the waistlines of children and adolescents are expanding alarmingly, making obesity among the young, one of the most serious health challenges of the 21st century. Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the number of overweight children under the age of five was over 42 million.
Even more disturbing is the fact that overweight and obese children have up to an 80 per cent chance of growing into overweight and obese adults at greater risk of developing life-threatening cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Childhood obesity can also cause problems related to low self-esteem and depression.
Christine Ong, Chief Dietitian, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, stresses that weight issues can have emotional as well as social consequences in children: "They may be teased by other kids about their weight, and become overly self-conscious."
Obesity in Singapore
In Singapore, like in other parts of the world, obesity is a growing concern even though the city-state has been able to reduce the overall proportion of overweight students from 11.7 per cent in 1993 to 9.5 per cent in 2006, according to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBAR).
Since obesity in children is largely due to excessive calorie consumption and inadequate physical exercise, Ong says it is crucial that parents help their children develop positive eating habits. Sometimes, parents lack the necessary nutritional knowledge and are obese themselves. Consulting a dietitian could benefit the health of the whole family.
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A nutritious and balanced diet is all the more important for children as they not only need nutrition for day to day activities, but also for growth and development.
Just like adults, children 2 years old and above need to consume a variety of healthy foods including lean meats, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, while keeping fats and sugar to a minimum. However, Ong emphasises, it is important to allow children small amounts of their favourite foods once or twice a week, so they don't feel deprived.
Tips for parents
Ong suggests that parents:
Make eating together at the dining table a priority. Eating in front of the TV is distracting and can lead to overeating.
Encourage regular meals, including breakfast, since a child who skips meals tends to snack more.
Suggest their kids drink water instead of sugary drinks to quench their thirst.
Put emphasis on greater physical activity and outdoor play.
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Micheal Lim, Senior Clinical Exercise Physiologist, Sports Medicine Service, KK Women's and Children's Hospital, recommends that children should aim to accumulate at least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity daily to keep them healthy.
Daily exercise can come from structured sports such as basketball or swimming to unstructured or incidental activities such as walking to school and climbing stairs. "It is important to find out the child's interest before deciding on the type of activities. Exercise should be fun so he or she must enjoy before benefiting from it," Lim says.
Playing outdoors has several health benefits for growing children too, aiding their physical development as well as their general sense of well-being. When engaged in group play, children can also learn important socializing skills.
Besides encouraging your child to be more active, parents should also aim to reduce time spent on sedentary activities. If your child is glued to his or her computer or gaming console, try to impose limits.
It is recommended that children should aim to spend less than 2 hours a day on such recreational screen time. Parents can replace some sedentary gaming time with active gaming like playing Wii and Kinect, but they should not be used as a surrogate for participation in sports and recreational activities.
Related article: Can game consoles help your kids stay in shape?
In both children and adults, a little structured exercise in addition to regular physical activity, together with small but permanent changes in eating habits can go a long way towards maintaining a healthy weight in our children.
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This article was written by Anjana Motihar Chandra for Health Xchange, with expert input from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Sports Medicine Service at KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
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