We learnt recently that 700 children across the Lothians, some as young as two, have been sent to paediatric weight management programmes – or “fat camps’” – since 2011.
Across Scotland 3500 primary one pupils were obese in 2014 alone. Overweight and obesity in early life can be very hard indeed to reverse, potentially leading to early onset type 2 diabetes in the teens and heart disease and cancers by the time individuals reach their 30s and 40s. But how can we make sure our children get the best start in life? Overweight and obesity in childhood is complex and there is no simple “quick fix”.
Our western food culture is unusual in that we have separate foods for children, which are often more processed and less healthy than adult foods. Most other cultures introduce toddlers to an adult-type diet immediately after weaning. However, in the UK many foods targeted at children are often highly processed, containing worrying amounts of salt and sugar. And when it comes to moving our kids on to a more adult diet as they age things can become, well, rather difficult!
Our eating habits and tastes are established very early in life and can become very tough to alter. If we adults can set our young a good example of what a healthy diet is, making sure they’re exposed to good food from an early age, and if we can avoid unhealthy processed children’s “food” and sugary “treats”, we’ll give them a much better chance of a healthy life.
In one sense it’s easy to understand weight gain: if we consume more energy than we use we put on weight. It therefore makes sense not only to avoid over-sized meals for kids but to limit the foods which are both very high in energy and low in nutrition. High-sugar snacks and drinks are a particular culprit. One simple thing that we can all do to help maintain a healthy weight is reduce our intakes of such foods. In fact the Government has recently slashed our daily sugar recommendations. Children aged four-six may have a maximum of 19 grams (roughly four teaspoons) and children seven-ten 24 grams (five teaspoons). 11-year olds and above may now consume up to 30 grams. Bear in mind that a single 330ml can of fizzy juice has roughly 34 grams of sugar in it.
While the amount of energy children consume is key, exercise also plays an important role. It’s well known that life is becoming increasingly sedentary, for young and adult alike. According to the NHS, toddlers require at least three hours a day of movement and light activity. Children five and over should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate and vigorous physical activity every day. Try to limit screen time and encourage play.
Healthy eating messages for children aged nought-five do differ from those for an adult. Very young children have small stomachs and – as they are growing and developing so much – need calorie-rich and nutrient-dense foods. In common with adults our young should eat a mixture of carbohydrate foods, fruit and vegetables, dairy and protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and pulses. Children need plenty of healthy fats such as those from full-fat dairy, meat and oily fish.
It is important to introduce a wide range of flavours from as young an age as possible and to strictly limit salt and sugar to prevent kids developing too much of a taste for them. Babies under one year should have no salt at all. Further, under-fives shouldn’t have a diet too high in bulky wholemeal fibre either (they can get all the fibre they need from fruit and vegetables) as it may affect the absorption of important nutrients like calcium and iron. However, children should move towards an adult diet (with plenty of wholemeal carbs) by the age of five.
It can be difficult for many of us to spot whether or not our kids are in fact overweight. The NHS Choices website has a handy BMI calculator specifically for children, plus plenty of helpful information.
Chris Mantle is senior food and health development worker at Edinburgh Community Food