Children in the developed world are getting heavier, and Singapore is no exception. Find out what you can do to spare your child from the emotional and physical toll of obesity.
RISE IN CASES
In 1976, 1.4 percent of Primary 1 pupils and 2.2 percent of Primary 6 pupils were overweight or obese. By 2006, this had shot up to 12.7 percent and 15.9 percent respectively. In 2014, 12 percent of school-going children in Singapore were obese.
Singapore’s figures reflect global trends. The number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has jumped tenfold over the past 40 years. And being an obese child is no laughing matter, though it can serve as a magnet for bullies who love to tease the overweight child. The low self-esteem that many obese children experience can lead to depression that leads to emotional or comfort eating that leads to more weight gain… It’s a vicious cycle that is likely to worsen until it is broken.
Aside from emotional and psychological issues, obesity raises risk factors for coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, hyperlipidaemia, sleep apnoea, asthma, diabetes, fatty liver, joint pain and more. Furthermore, studies have shown that reduced physical activity, which is often associated with childhood obesity, may affect cognitive development.
Perhaps the strongest argument for nipping childhood obesity in the bud is that overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. The misconception that ‘baby fat’ or ‘puppy fat’ will be ‘outgrown’ is a dangerous one.
In its latest study on obesity, the Health Promotion Board found that seven in 10 children who are overweight at age seven will become obese adults.
WHAT IS OBESITY?
Obesity is defined as excess body fat, and there are many ways to quantify body fat and determine whether a child is obese. In Singapore, the weight for height chart is the most commonly used tool to determine obesity. It sets out underweight, borderline underweight, healthy weight, borderline overweight, overweight and severely overweight ranges, in kilograms and fractions of kilograms, for both boys and girls according to height.
WHAT’S MAKING OUR CHILDREN FAT?
As parents around the developed world lament, kids used to play outside rather than play on their computers and phones. The growing popularity and accessibility of processed and fast food, sugary sodas and other calorie-dense foods and drinks hasn’t helped. Moreover, our rising affluence and even the improved efficiency of our public transport system means that kids seldom walk to school as they did in the past.
That said, here’s some sobering food for thought: Parents are usually the main decision-makers in their children’s food choices.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
It’s a fact that children whose parents or siblings are overweight are more likely to become overweight, due to both genetic and lifestyle factors. Tan Shiling, Senior Dietitian at Mount Alvernia Hospital, urges parents to set good examples for their children by eating healthily and exercising regularly. Caregivers such as domestic helpers and grandparents should follow suit, and never undermine the parents’ good example by ‘treating’ or rewarding children with foods.
“Children are great imitators, so they pick up the eating habits from their family members,” said Shiling.
In the absence of weight issues, Shiling advises that eating fast food not more than twice a week is acceptable. Her healthy tips when eating fast food include: avoid upsizing when ordering set meals; ask for little or no mayonnaise or other sauces in burgers; and remove the skin or fatty shred on meat or chicken.
In addition, parents should ensure there are plenty of vegetables and a selection of non-fried items at each meal. Colourful fresh fruits should be offered as fun and pleasurable snacks instead of cakes, ice cream, potato chips and chocolates.
Apart from encouraging healthy eating habits, Sarah Sinaram, Head, Nutrition and Dietetics Department at Mount Alvernia Hospital, advises parents to limit their children’s ‘screen time’ of any kind to two hours a day. She also urges parents to involve their children in grocery shopping and discussions about healthy food options.
“If your child is older, involve them in food preparation at home,” suggested Sarah. “Instead of using food as a reward, reward your child with play time at the park or some other outdoor activity.”
Getting children involved in sports is a great way to encourage regular physical activity. The benefits are boundless, from healthy bone and joint development to self-esteem and social interaction with peers.
Take charge of your child’s weight today, and set them on the path to a fit and healthy, active adulthood.
Article contributed by Ms Tan Shiling, dietitian and Ms Sarah Sinaram, Nutrition and Dietetics Manager at Mount Alvernia Hospital. Click here to learn more about our Nutrition and Dietetic services.