Childhood obesity is fast becoming a major health concern in the country. HEMA VIJAY on the lifestyle modifications that can be made to pre-empt the problem

Today, around 2 per cent of urban Indian kids are obese, 8-10 per cent of them are overweight, and the numbers are only growing. “It is alarming, because adolescent obesity cannot be kept in check later on, unless a huge behavioural intervention is made,” cautions Dr. Dharini Krishnan, consultant dietician. Childhood and adolescent obesity has to be addressed seriously, because it predisposes children to diabetes, and even cardiac problems in their later years. Stress is another possibility, because kids feel depressed about being overweight which, in turn, makes them overeat leading to further obesity. Children who are obese may also be calcium deficient, because they are likely to drink more of sweetened beverages instead of milk.

Role of parents and school

But the good news is we can pre-empt childhood obesity. “This requires a comprehensive effort on the part of parents, schools, government, industry, and the community”, says Dr. Ethan Bergman, president. American Dietetic Association who visited the city recently to address a conference on Child Nutrition and Weight Management, organised by the Heinz Nutrition Foundation of India (HNFI).

In their growing years, children need enough nutrition to sustain growth, but not too much. While dieticians can help you formulate a specific eating plan, the website of the Indian Council of Medical Research has information on the recommended calorie intake for different age groups. While eating at home, ensure that the food on the table includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, which brings down cereal consumption and calorie intake. As for packed lunch, remember that lunch time is when kids have their discussions. “Kids tend to skip the less attractive foods such as vegetables, when lunch time is inadequate. Surveys indicate that most kids take only 7-9 minutes to eat their lunch. So, ideally, schools can allot a 30-minute slot for lunch, while parents should pack a lunch that can be consumed within 7-9 minutes,” suggests Dr. Bergman. “Moreover, lunch hour after P.T or recess time makes children eat their lunch with enthusiasm, and ensures they don’t skip it. Skipping meals will only leave the door open for snacking later; and snacks tend be low on nutrition and high on calories, salt or sugar,” Dr. Bergman points out.

Periodic monitoring

Along with proper diet, periodic monitoring and evaluation of the weight status, nutrition-education counselling and physical activity, parent and care giver participation are required. “Only when all these criteria are met, does the effort succeed,” says Dr. Bergman. While parental restriction of calorie-rich foods has its role, schools could integrate nutritional counselling with academics. For instance, the math teacher could hand out problems based on calories, calculation of Body Mass Index (BMI), etc.; the biology teacher could incorporate lessons on metabolic pathways into a lesson on how different kinds of food get transformed in our body and how excess body weight affects health and fitness. “Meanwhile, keep a tab on the child’s screen time — time spent on TV/videogames/computer, which cause obesity because sitting burns very little calories, and because this would have taken the place of physical games,” remarks Dr. Mahesh Kumar, consultant paediatrician. Kids need 60 minutes of physical activity every day, advises Dr. Bergman. But these 60 minutes needn’t be packed into one slot.