The greatest causes of poor health in children in the modern world are obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise1,2,3. In 1999, the British Medical Journal "found an alarming proportion of preschool children to be overweight and even obese. [... By] age five, 18.7 percent were deemed overweight and 7.2 percent obese" and in the USA between 16 to 33% of 5 year olds are obese, a problem which has got twice as bad since 19802. A decade later, in 2012, the National Child Measurement Programme (UK) reported that the 5-year-olds figure was now 22% overweight and that over 33% of 11-year-olds were overweight or obese3. The World Health Organisation states that the global numbers of those between 0 to 5 who are overweight increased by 33% between 1990 and 2013 and "without intervention, obese infants and young children will likely continue to be obese during childhood, adolescence and adulthood"4. This isn't just individual parents and families - it is the failure of entire cultures. The problems are largely preventable4, and the solutions are not complicated: a healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity5. The effects of childhood obesity include persistent long-term ill health, diabetes, heart disease, social stigmatisation which can start from a very early age, and psychological and habitual problems which can make lifestyle recovery very difficult in adulthood.
Childhood obesity in particular worries the Public Health England, a UK government body6. At the beginning of a 2013 report, they emphasize the importance of prevention rather than cure when it comes to obesity - the best course of action for our long-term health is "intervening before conditions become unmanageable. [...] We all need to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing, but for many it is more difficult than it should be. For example, healthy behaviours in childhood and the teenage years set patterns for later life yet we know that not all children have a realistic opportunity of a good start in life"7. Letting children over-eat is not only bad parenting, but with the long-term damage it can do to health, it can often be child abuse.
2012 saw news reports of theme park workers who have to turn away many children from certain rides because of their weight. But sometimes, the realities of the practical issues surrounding obesity can hit home. Such an event of being turned-away had such an impact on one child that they endeavoured of their own accord to return to a normal weight.8
Some of the issues that face obese children are:
- cardiovascular disease
- insulin resistance (often an early sign of impending diabetes)
- musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis - a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints)
- some cancers (endometrial, breast and colon)
Poor diets have led to a rise in rickets and iron deficiency amongst one in four children, "which is linked to slower intellectual development and poor behaviour in the longer term"5. "Paul Gately, professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Metropolitan University [...] runs weight loss camps for overweight children [and says m]any parents don't realise their child is fat when it might be obvious to other people, he says. According to studies, 75% of parents underestimated the size of an overweight child, while 50% underestimated the size of an obese child". Healthcare professionals also routinely underestimate fat children's weight.8
Get Active: Childrens' increasingly sedentary lives is leading to ill-health - too much watching TV and computer usage, say scientists from the University of Montreal8. It is hard to find many who disagree. "Regular physical activity during the early years provides immediate and long-term benefits for physical and psychological well-being. [...] The risk that childhood inactivity will lead to poor health in later life is high"9.
Breastfeeding: The World Health Organisation says "exclusive breastfeeding from birth to 6 months of age is an important way to help prevent infants from becoming overweight or obese"4.
Avoid Junk Food: "Feeding infants energy-dense, high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods is a key contributor to childhood obesity"4. Well-funded, aggressive and ubiquitous marketing campaigns for junk food, often aimed indirectly at children, make it harder for parents to keep their children eating sensibly4. Unfortunately many ready-meals and snack-foods that are designed for children are often high in fats, sugars and salt and should be completely avoided9. Charlie Powell, campaigns director of the Children's Food Campaign - an alliance of 150 education bodies, health groups and children's charities - says it's... hard for parents to stand up to the barrage of junk food advertising"8. Multiple nutrient deficiencies are on the rise amongst children, which high-salt and high-fat foods taking the place of fruit and vegetables5.
Get Educated and pay attention to the simple "healthy eating" leaflets that can be found in all doctor's surgeries. Lack of knowledge about food and lack of skills has been highlighted in a factor in childhood obesity4,8.
Avoid the Use of Food to Make Children Happy and Quiet. This is bad and irresponsible parenting; an easy life for the selfish parent, but a life of ill-health and impracticalities for the child.8
Setting Good Habits7: "Choosing healthy foods for infants and young children is critical because food preferences are established in early life"4. "Research confirms that healthy eating habits in the years before school are very important because they influence growth, development and academic achievement in later life"5.
A mother's obesity has a biochemical effect on her own babies, causing a "vicious cycle of obesity": a newborn baby is at higher risk of being overweight if their mother was fat. This still occurs even if that child is brought up in a completely different household10. It is thought that the foetus picks up on factors in the mother's blood, somehow instructing the baby's body to prepare to store more fat than necessary.
Fat parents lead to fat children. Families get caught in a cycle of poor lifestyle choices and fail over the long term to adopt better behaviours. The booklet "Healthy Pregnancy" by Gill Thorn (2003)11 devotes two pages to alcohol, and two pages to smoking. All parents know (hopefully) that such things are bad for their unborn children and for their families. But the situation with obesity is much worse than either; the booklet has twenty one pages on diet and weight.
“A good diet reduces the chances of foetal abnormality and helps to ensure that your baby grows as well as possible.”
Scientific studies back up the idea that a pregnant woman's poor choices in life have long-term negative consequences for the child. "Many adult diseases, from obesity and diabetes to high blood pressure [...] have their origins in how the fetus is fed. Indeed, this particular cluster of symptoms is seen by a growing number of workers in the field as a single disease, known variously as metabolic syndrome or syndrome x. [... An inadequate diet in a] pregnant woman puts her child at greater risk of [having] a lower IQ than their peers, [finding] normal social relations harder to deal with, and [lacking] fine-tuned physical co-ordination". The effects are also linked with "educational problems and anti-social activity" and are very long term - "environmental damage wrought in the womb is as irreversible as the effects of bad genes".12
Another factor that involves poor parenting is food fussiness. This is bad enough amongst adults - and really - too few of us approach food realistically or sensibly. Too many adults make absolute statements of complete refusal to eat certain foods, despite the fact that the food is both perfectly edible, and prepared appropriately. This sets very bad examples for their children, who then learn that such behaviour is normal - and they'll use it to get more sugary and saltier foods out of their parents.
It's not just the over-pampered that display such behaviour - parents are teaching their kids the same things. Children have no right, and no excuse, to refuse ordinary food on account of not liking it. In fact, during meals I very frequently make a point of saying, "I don't really like this, but I know it is good food and I'm going to eat it anyway, so I grow up big and strong!". And many other similar lines. My gorgeous little boy eats almost anything. All it takes is good leadership, and he is already a better eater than quite a few adults I know!”