A weighted issue: What can I do about my child’s obesity?

If you and your child’s doctor are concerned about your child’s weight, here are a few healthy steps to take.

 Active play helps boost children’s cognitive abilities, helps them maintain a healthy weight and learn social skills.

Did you know that an estimated 108 million children in the world are obese, and South Africa is not unaffected? According to the latest Vitality ObeCity Index, 10% of girls and 8% of boys today are overweight, compared with only 7% of girls and 6% of boys in the ’80s. It is shocking, but as a parent, you have the responsibility to ensure your child doesn’t become one of the statistics. Here are four steps to help set your child up with healthy habits for life:

Decrease screen time

In many family homes around the world, screen time has become a substitute for much-needed activity. As a result, children do not play and move enough. Research has found that children who spend more than four hours a day in front of a screen are twice as likely to be overweight. It is not just TV that should concern us.

The last Healthy Active Kids South Africa (HAKSA) Report Card – an analysis of studies on health habits of South African children supported by Discovery Vitality – revealed that social media accounts grew by 30% between 2014 and 2015 with youth-dominated Instagram use growing by an astonishing 133%.

Another study found that teens lose sleep because they send an average of 34 messages after bedtime. Researchers have linked this to mood swings, anxiety, depression, and poor cognitive functioning.

Ways to decrease screen time: 

  • The key is finding a balance between screen time and other activities.
  • Set a cut-off time for TV and playing on mobile devices. Create a mobile phone ‘parking lot’ at home where everyone (mom and dad included) parks their phone.
  • You may also want to schedule outdoor playtime like a pre-supper family walk to the local park or playing in the garden.

Good to know: Shutting down screens well before bedtime will improve the quality of sleep and sleep habits in the family.

Get active

Active play helps boost children’s cognitive abilities, helps them maintain a healthy weight, and learn social skills. Here are a few tips to help you initiate playtime at home:

  • Make physical play fun: Teach your children the classics, like hopscotch, hide ‘n seek, and stuck in the mud.
  • Give gifts of health: Instead of new TV games, give them a tennis bat or soccer ball.
  • Schedule active time: Plan family walks, soccer matches, or games of Frisbee and replace the Friday night movie with a putt-putt tournament.
  • Encourage a variety: Playing a variety of games and sports exposes kids to different skill sets, movement patterns, and coordination, as well as gain different types of fitness.
  • Be a sports supporter: Turning up to watch your kids play soccer or swim in a gala sends the message that you support an active lifestyle. You could also try doing Park Runs together, a free five-kilometre run, or a walk on Saturday mornings.

Encourage good eating habits for life

Healthy childhood eating habits help set up lifelong balanced eating, so consistently expose children to a varied and healthy diet. Here are five tips to encourage healthy eating:

  1. Cut, peel, and segment fruit in ready-to-eat, bite-sized pieces.
  2. Name foods after superheroes. When children think Spiderman eats broccoli, they are more likely to eat it too.
  3. Serve food on small plates and bowls to prevent over-eating or wasting. Children can always ask for seconds if they are still hungry.
  4. Make small changes to meal combos. Improve the nutritional value of a meal by including vegetables and legumes in traditional favourites e.g. put lentils in bolognaise. Only occasionally offer a small portion of unhealthy food.
  5. Offer healthy, nutritious snacks. When children eat vegetables, plain yoghurt, or nuts, they eat significantly fewer kilojoules before feeling full than when snacking on crisps or sweets.

Turn to home-cooked foods

On average, South African teens drink more than one soft drink each day, have a weekly sugar intake three times higher than recommended and their salt intake from snack foods alone is higher than the overall recommendation. The antidote is to cook wholesome meals at home and provide water to drink rather than soft drinks and fruit juice. Invite the kids to cook too.

A 2011 Canadian study found that involving kids in preparing healthy meals at home is instrumental in developing and maintaining healthy eating behaviours in children. Teaching children how to prepare healthy meals is a way to spend quality time with your kids while helping to teach them a life skill that will serve them well in adulthood.