A matter of fat

April 30 2003 | by

ABOUT SIX MONTHS ago, my wife and I noticed that our son Gabriel, 6, was putting on extra weight. Much like his older sister, Gabriel was always 'well padded', never skinny, but also not fat. However, at this particular point, his tummy was turning into a 'spare tire'. For the next few months, we made sure Gabriel had many opportunities to exercise and, if he was still hungry after eating his meal, we suggested that he eat low calorie and low fat foods, mostly fruits and vegetables.

Since we were discreet about introducing these changes and they applied to the whole family, Gabriel probably didn't notice the difference and his weight quickly stabilised. With his body type though - and his sister's for that matter - my wife and I remain vigilant about their weight. Part of our concern stems from our own childhood experience. From the time of my earliest memories, I was an overweight child. By about age eight, I was obese and remained so until the age of twenty.

By following a diet and exercise regime, my weight has been under control ever since, for a period of about twenty years. As a fat child and adolescent, I was very unhappy. My fitness level was not very good, so I did not do well at team sports. I felt humiliated at always being the last kid chosen on the team, so in turn played less and then less well. My clothes never fit properly. Instead of looking and dressing like a teenager, I felt that I looked like a frumpy middle-aged adult. Finally, while I did have some friends, I often felt shunned socially and my self-esteem suffered a further blow due to persistent bullying. In other words, I wasn't very happy, and I do not want my children to go through the same experience. My wife also went through a period of her life when she was too heavy, and so she is also aware of the physical and emotional consequences of being overweight.

Health risks

However, our concern about the weight of our children is not only based on our personal experience. In industrialised countries, the number of overweight and obese children is increasing dramatically, with many experts sounding the alarm and claiming that the situation has reached epidemic proportions. According to a recent Canadian study, for example, 33 percent of Canadian boys were overweight in 1996, three times more than in 1981. For the same period, the number of overweight girls went from 13 to 27 percent. The study also indicated that the percentage of obese children was five times higher in 1996 than in 1981, with ten percent of boys and nine percent of girls considered obese (Obesity is usually defined as being at least 20 percent above ideal body weight). In the United States, one child in five is overweight and the number of overweight children continues to grow. Over the last 2 decades, this number has increased by more than 50 percent, and the number of 'extremely' overweight children has nearly doubled (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1995:149:1085-91).

Furthermore, studies such as these are also highlighting the serious health risks these overweight and obese children are facing: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels; cardiovascular ailments which can lead to heart disease and stroke; and an increasing number of cases of Type 2 diabetes, which can produce all kinds of complications later in life.

Calorie consumption

This trend in industrialised nations is somewhat puzzling, given our obsession with body image and dieting. With most role models being thin and fit, why are the children in these countries increasingly overweight and out of shape? Medical experts suggest numerous reasons, the most obvious being that kids are consuming more calories than they are burning off. Genetics can be a factor. If children have one or two obese parents, there are good chances that they will also be obese. The prevalence and availability of 'fast-food' and high calorie and high fat snacks seem to be other major reasons. Furthermore, this food is often cheaper and quicker to produce than the traditional home-cooked variety.

In our family, for example, we check product labels, which is a very good idea. Since we know snacks can be extremely fattening and bad for you besides, we try to plan ahead and have nutritious snacks on hand. However, even by being careful, it is astounding how many opportunities there are to sample high fat and high calorie treats. If we do not often have these foods in our home, our kids are offered some just about everywhere they go! Parents are then stuck policing their children, which is easier when they are little, but becomes much more difficult as they grow older. I know from personal experience! When I was a child and a teenager, my parents tried to keep an eye on the amounts of food I consumed. However, I was very good at finding opportunities of eating that they were not aware of. Sometimes, they would catch me in the act. Once, I ate a whole pail of frozen donuts my grandmother had made. The whole family still remembers that!

Lack of exercise

Burning off these extra calories obviously requires greater activity, but studies are also indicating that kids are exercising less. They are watching much more television than before and spend a lot of time playing computer games where they do not exercise much. With pressures to focus on reading, writing, arithmetic and other basics, gym classes are often being cut back and shortened, even when adequate facilities are available. And much like their parents, children these days often prefer driving somewhere rather than walking. Fortunately, many people have been working to reverse these trends, with encouraging results. There are summer camps especially geared to overweight children, where they have effective nutrition and exercise programmes. Similar programmes are also being introduced in schools, in an attempt to help children before their weight problems gets too serious.

Role model

Finally, many parents are showing initiative in this area and obtaining great results. What can we as parents do? Encourage active play. Initiate family walks, ball games, etc. Limit television viewing for ourselves and for our children. Offer nutritious alternatives to high calorie and high fat foods. Be conscious about the messages we send out about food. For example, we should not force children to finish every meal or provide food for comfort or as a reward.

Then, in case you haven't guessed already, the best thing parents can do is model good behaviour and 'practice what they preach'. After all, most adults also have to watch what they eat and get enough exercise. Adults are exposed to the same temptations as children. As an adult who has experienced being overweight and obese as a child and as a teenager, however, I must admit that it was much harder controlling my weight then than it is now.

As a child, I did not understand the emotions which would lead me to overeat. As a child, I did not understand the mechanics of nutrition and exercise. I cannot remember it ever being explained clearly, though I know my doctor and my parents tried. I failed at dieting many times before I actually succeeded in finding a balance between food and exercise. It truly was a trial and error process, and I know so many who are still struggling as adults.

Parents of overweight and obese children and adolescents have to try to help them, but they also have to remember to love them no matter what, in success, in failure and even in frequent failure.

Updated on October 06 2016