Until recently the battle of the bulge has been fought primarily by adults. Today, however, the largest growing segments among the obese are our children and adolescents. With this new epidemic comes grave health consequences for future generations. While scientists are busy looking at genetic factors, hormonal imbalances, and drugs to correct these problems, the greatest culprits are largely being ignored: namely poor nutrition and lack of physical activity.
Over the past two decades, rates of overweight and obesity have nearly tripled among Canadian children, according to a 2004 “Canadian Institutes of Health Information’s report. In fact, Statistics Canada now says we have one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world.
Regular exercise and physical activity is critical for weight loss and overall health, yet with each passing year our children are becoming less active. Canada’s Physical Activity Guide advises 90 minutes a day of physical activity for children, it was found that only 13 per cent were meeting that target. Schools share some of that blame, as their programs have been dramatically slashed due to cutbacks. The Canadian Teacher’s Federation says that only one-third of all schools have formal physical education programs. And those that do offer them simply do not include enough vigorous activity for a long enough period of time to combat inactivity.
Also, the availability and popularity of television, video games, and computers has drawn children out of organized sports or after school fun and play into the house. According to a 2000 report by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), the average Canadian child spends about three to five hours a day ogling the one-eyed monster or “twittering” away on a computer screen. Combine that with six hours a day sitting in a classroom, and you have some serious inactivity.
Another obvious link in the chain is junk food! Most schools do not offer healthy lunches and other meal programs, according to the CMAJ study. And even when lunches are packed for children by parents, these kids seem to have an unlimited supply of soft drinks, candy, chips, and fast foods available to them.
The results are often disastrous. Poor eating habits may prevent children from reaching their full potential. Research now suggests that poor nutrition affects children’s intellectual performance. With decreased energy and cognitive ability, they are not likely to improve grades and their classroom behaviour, as well as psychological well-being may suffer.
Combine inactivity and poor nutrition, and it’s no wonder our children are becoming supersized. Health authorities now warn that unless we do something fast, this generation could become the first to have shorter life spans than their parents. This is due to the risk of developing diseases previously only seen in adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, asthma and so on.
The obvious solutions
There are a number of things which can be done. Children love “grab and go” snacks, so stock your kitchen with veggies and dip; berries; yogurt; low-fat cheese and apples; healthy trail mix; baked nachos and salsa; homemade popsicles and air popped popcorn.
You also have to eliminate sweet drinks. The average can of pop and or sugary juice (punches or cocktails) contains approximately 9-11 teaspoons of sugar. If one of the first ingredients listed on the label is sugar, glucose or high fructose corn syrup, the product is not likely to contribute to good health. Stick to water to properly hydrate your child without packing on excess calories, or 100 per cent fruit juices (in moderation and watered down).
Try to keep your child moving as well. It is prudent to have your children participate in 1 hour of physical activity daily. Whether it is joining a community centre, team sports, bike riding as a family or swimming lessons – it all start with participation.
The federal government has touted its children’s fitness tax credit as one way to encourage parents to help their kids get active. Parents can claim a maximum of $500 a year for eligible fitness expenses, which must “include a significant amount of physical activity that contributes to cardio-respiratory endurance, plus one or more of: muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility or balance.”
Make them eat a healthy breakfast also. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that skipping meals and eating less frequently was linked with being four times more likely to be obese than those who ate breakfast daily.
A child’s diet should be filled with fresh fruits, vegetable, eggs, chicken, fish, whole grain bread, cereal and pasta, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy products. Processed and refined floury items, fast food, and sugar-laden products should be kept to a bare minimum, and saved for an occasional treat.
So you can see, there may be serious health and social consequences that come with being overweight or obese. By implementing the steps above, we can slowly turn the epidemic of obesity into one of healthy kids for life.