Preventing Childhood Obesity

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Preventing Childhood Obesity

Pinki was in 4th grade sitting in a doctor’s office, the first time her face flushed with shame. She was, she had just learned, obese.

She will remember the pediatrician’s words forever: It’s probably from eating all that pizza and ice cream. It tastes good, doesn’t it? But it makes your body big and fat.

She felt her face sear with shame.

Pinki learned so much in that one moment: You’re not beautiful. You’re indulging too much. Your body is wrong. You must have done it. She’d failed a test she didn’t even know she’d taken, and the sense of failure and self-loathing it inspired planted the seeds of a depression she would live with for many years.

Childhood obesity is a big public health challenge, and has been for some time. Almost 19 per cent of Indian children are obese. Apart from bringing many health-related complications, childhood obesity brings in its wake shattering psychological sequelae too.

This article discusses ways in which we can prevent childhood obesity and also how we can ensure our kids develop a healthy relationship with food and with their own bodies, so they don’t end up feeling shame.

This is Part 1 where I share some strategies to follow with your infants, toddlers and preschoolers. In part 2 of this article, I’ll share strategies with school-going kids and teens.

You, my dear parents, have more power than you realize in preventing obesity and even eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or even binge eating. And your work starts early, right from when your child is an infant.

In Infancy

  1. Breastfeed your baby as much as possible
  2. Follow the no salt/no sugar rule until 1 year of age.

In toddlers and preschoolers

1.      Offer new food multiple times: No self-respecting toddler tries a new food the first time she sees it. But eventually, she’s likely to. Studies show that the major predictor in children’s willingness to eat a food is familiarity. So keep offering new foods again and again.

2.     Choose non-food rewards: Offering food items especially chocolate or candy as reward only serves to reinforce the idea that these food items are special treats. Instead, offer rewards like more time with you or an extra book at reading hour.

3.     It’s best not to label food as good or bad: Instead use labels ‘Go’ foods, ‘Slow’ foods, and ‘Whoa’ foods. ‘Go’ foods are almost anytime foods like fruits, veggies, and whole grains, ‘Slow’ foods are sometime foods like bread, pancakes, fresh fruit juice, and veggies with added sauces, and ‘Whoa’ foods are once-in-a-while foods, like sausages, ice cream, candy, and packaged juice.

Instead of forbidding ‘whoa’ foods, teach your child that they can enjoy these foods in moderation for special occasions. Deprivation often leads to binging, which leads to guilt and a whole cycle of disordered behavior around food.

That means you don’t need to keep ‘whoa’ food in the house, where it’s hard to resist. Kids will eat what’s around, and sneak it if they have to. 

4.     Keep healthy snacks accessible: Carrot sticks, homemade ragi or multigrain biscuits, baked nuts and dry fruits, roasted foxnuts, roasted peanuts with puffed rice…keep these types of high fibre snacks in small boxes on your child’s table or at a place where they’re easily accessible to your child. Keep a big basket of fruit in the middle of your dining table or living room.

5.     Ensure enough sleep: poor sleep is a major risk factor for weight gain and obesity in kids and adults alike. Toddlers and preschoolers need 10-13 hours of sleep each day, including naps. Set regular bedtimes, wake-up times, and a relaxing bedtime routine for your child.

6.     Ensure physical activity: Have your child participate in a variety of fun and challenging physical activities that help build skills and coordination. At this age your child might enjoy swimming, playing on a playground, dancing, and riding a bicycle.

7.     Ensure at least 1 gadget-free family meal a day: Research shows that at least 1 meal in which the whole family comes together to eat, without any gadgets, helps in preventing obesity and facilitate healthy eating habits.

In the part 2 of this article, I’ll share some strategies for preventing childhood obesity for your 6-18 year olds.

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