BY Alison Bellamy
We all like to make a fuss over a plump baby or chubby cheeked toddler, and rewarding a child with an occasional sweet treat is what some of us like to do – especially grandmothers it seems!
But when a treat turns into a regular habit and an indulgent unhealthy lifestyle develops, this can cause major health risks and complications for overweight children, putting a strain on their young bodies.
Indulging in the wrong kinds of foods and not enough exercise can lead to weight gain. The psychological effects on youngsters, coping with various health problems including type 2 diabetes and even bullying over their size, can be devastating.
Today, British children are among the heaviest in the world, with one in three classed as overweight or obese. Research suggests that – if left untreated – 85 percent of these children will become obese adults, which can shorten life expectancy and guarantee poor health through heart-related problems, diabetes or stroke.
There are 13 million children in the UK. Around 4.3 million of them are overweight (33.4 percent). Out of this number 1.76 million are overweight; 2.5 million are obese and 140,000 are severely obese. Recent reports show that there are some extremely obese youngsters out there.
As a parent of two young children, I know how difficult it can be to say ‘no’ to chocolate and sweets, but in moderation I feel they are acceptable alongside plenty of exercise plus eating healthily.
The Government’s recent budget announcement of a new ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks will be introduced from April in the UK.
It is all part of a bid to help prevent children from being overweight. The government is still deciding on a new strategy to tackle the problem, but admits that ‘something has to be done’.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has described the rise in childhood obesity as a “national emergency” and recently promised a “game changing” response from the government.
He said: “We have got to do something about this. I’ve got a one-year-old daughter, and by the time she reaches adulthood a third of the population will be clinically obese. One in 10 will have type 2 diabetes. It is a national emergency.”
He said he agreed with TV celebrity chef and healthy eating campaigner Jamie Oliver, who has already made changes with school meals, that he wanted “a robust strategy.”
He added: “The issue here is: do what it takes to make sure that children consume less sugar. Because we have got this terrible problem: we are the most obese nation in the EU.”
The tax will see an extra charge on all sugar filled fizzy drinks. Some retailers are unhappy with the news, but when a single can of cola contains seven teaspoons of sugar, far exceeding the recommended daily allowance of sugar for youngsters, the amount we all consume undoubtedly needs to be cut somehow.
As computer tablet and game app use becomes more popular and children as young as three or four are spending hours at a time using technology, our young people are moving less, meaning that we eat more than we burn off.
At one time, youngsters would ‘play out’ for hours on the streets or run to their local park with pals. But with stranger danger prevalent and parents not letting kids out of their sight as a result, coupled with our changing world of technology use, it is no surprise that there are more overweight children than ever before.
MoreLife, at Leeds Beckett University, is now one of the largest specialist training and service providers for tackling childhood and adult obesity in the UK. It runs weight loss management camps in West Yorkshire and clubs around the UK for very overweight youngsters aged 8-17 years. They learn about a healthy lifestyle and diet, nutrition, how to enjoy exercise and maintaining a healthy weight in a positive way, attracting children from around the world.
A MoreLife spokeswoman told us: “Like adult obesity, childhood obesity has many influencing factors, but essentially is caused by taking in more energy than we are using up over a long period of time.
“The biggest difference between childhood obesity and adult obesity is that, depending upon their age and
circumstances, young people have generally less control over their food intake. Older children have more responsibility over their lifestyle choices than their younger peers, whose diet and exercise patterns are largely controlled by their parents or care givers.
She says that children with obese parents are 12 times more likely to be overweight than if their parents were a healthy weight.
“It’s not just about food, it is about how active we are too. In reality children should be very active; it is recommended that young people should spend at least 60 minutes per day, or 7 hours a week, where they are being active to a level where they are out of breath. Research has shown that kids spend, on average, 52 hours in front of a screen each week. TV, internet, computer games are all taking time away from them being active,” she added.
The Children’s Food Campaign aims to improve children’s health by campaigning for policy changes in schools and communities.
The organisation has been calling for a sugary drinks duty in the UK since 2013. Co-ordinator Malcolm Clark said: “We welcome the recognition that the tax is a good starting point for reducing excess sugar consumption and that it will benefit households with children the most.
“Evidence from Mexico and other countries who have done the same is clear: consumption of those drinks goes down, the price of diet drinks does not increase, and there is no evidence that consumption of sugary foods has increased.
“Public Health England has published its revised Eatwell Guide, which gives clear guidance that chocolates, crisps and junk food are not an essential part of a balanced diet, but rather a treat on the side, and that the right kind of hydration – water, not sugary drinks – is important. It is only taken together, as a series of robust interventions and initiatives, that childhood obesity and excess sugar consumption may be effectively tackled.”
Small changes make a huge difference
Yasmin Akhtar’s son Aziz weighed almost 15 stones by the time he was 13. She got used to buying school uniforms in much larger sizes early, since he was around 5 years old. He was tall and they would joke he was ‘big boned’ and a ‘big boy’ but it was not until a routine health check at school that they were told he was severely obese. Mum Yasmin said: “He has always enjoyed his food and ate large portions of breads and rice along with curries. It was sweet treats that became a problem for him. He could not stop and would go in the cupboards and eat the lot when he came home from school. Things like biscuits, chocolates, crisps and he was always hungry. He would not just have a couple of biscuits, he ate the whole packet. My other children are not the same, in fact they are skinny.”
She said he was beginning to struggle to even walk to school or the madrassah and could not keep up with his friends. He struggled to play sports or run around the garden without getting breathless. With type 2 diabetes already in the family, Yasmin knew it was time to take action.
They sought help through their GP who referred the family to see a dietician and to their local sports centre for a special club which focused on those who needed to get fit and lose weight.
“Small changes make a lot of difference. We have stopped the sweet treats altogether and try to encourage fruit and more vegetables. It has been difficult but he is losing weight and enjoys the sports club. It is for his long-term health and future and the whole family has had to get involved to encourage him. Eating too much was an easy habit to get into but we hope things will improve.”