Obesity does not only affect adults. Even children can be strongly overweight and develop this pathology. Therefore, it is important for parents to keep their children’s weight under control by calculating their body mass index. What strategies should parents adopt in such a case? We talk about this topic with Dr. Martina Mura, dietitian of Humanitas.
On 22 and 23 May 2018, representatives of the countries participating in the surveillance programme on childhood obesity met in Vienna for the 11th Meeting of the European Childhood Obesity Surveillance (Cosi). The preliminary data (2015-2017) show, 10 years after the first survey, a reduction in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Italy and other countries such as Greece, Portugal and Slovenia. However, the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children aged 6-9 years in our country remains among the highest in Europe: 42% overweight males of which 21% are obese; 38% overweight females of which 14% are obese. Moreover, an obese or overweight child is much more likely to become an obese adult and develop early associated complications.
How to calculate the body mass index (BMI)
To obtain this data it is necessary to divide the weight by the square height, multiplying the result obtained by 703. If placing the value obtained on a graph that marks the percentiles is positioned between the 85th and 95th percentiles, we are faced with an overweight child. If, on the other hand, the value is placed from the 95th percentile onwards, we can speak of real childhood obesity.
Seek medical advice
The first thing to do if you find that your child is obese is definitely to consult a doctor. It will be first a pediatrician and then a nutrition specialist who will provide the correct indications, prescribe the examinations and recommend an adequate diet in relation to the specific situation.
The importance of a good example
Child obesity is closely related to certain behaviors that children and young people learn in the family. Those who feed unscrupulously, without any attention to the choice of healthy and nutritious foods, will inevitably teach their children to do the same. That is why parents should not underestimate the great influence that their eating habits have on children and young people.
Parental style influences the propensity to obesity
Researchers and experts unanimously stress the importance of not forcing the relationship between children and food in any way. Exercising excessive control over this natural aspect of life almost always risks causing the opposite effect. A study in the UK has provided evidence to support the view that restricting food consumption too much or regulating it too rigidly leads children themselves to weight problems in adulthood and to develop difficulties in controlling themselves. Often overweight parents are excessively judgmental towards their children, especially the mothers.
“The example in the family is truly fundamental – added Mura – because the child shapes his eating habits and lifestyle on those of his parents. The lifestyle of parents influences the risk of the child to become obese and develop pathologies such as hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, even before conception and especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is protective and should be encouraged, not only because of the particular composition of the milk, but also because it promotes the development of the child’s taste: in fact, unlike formulas, breast milk takes on different flavors depending on the mother’s diet. Breastfed babies are more likely to have a varied diet during childhood.
When active living starts in the family
According to statistics, athletic parents will more easily develop children that engage in physical activity as adults. While the father figure seems to be able to set a good example more easily, causing a direct effect on the willingness of children to play sports, mothers play an important role as motivators. It is the same at the table, and it is therefore important that in the family an example is set without any coercive behavior, passing on the message and transmitting values and contents indirectly.
“It is recommended to shop carefully and prefer certain foods, but categorically banning a food can be counterproductive, because it triggers the search for the forbidden in the child – explained the dietitian. It is better to choose the ‘least worst’ option and grant it occasionally, as part of a balanced diet. It is also important that the family does not have a difficult relationship with food, which should not be used as a punishment or reward. Involving children in the preparation of meals helps to create a relaxed atmosphere, allows children to familiarize themselves with the different foods and taste them without too much resistance.
“In light of these influences – concluded Mura, in case a child becomes overweight or obese, starting only the child ‘on a diet’ is a limited and failed approach. The whole family (even better if you include grandparents and uncles) should be involved in multidisciplinary meetings, with dieticians, nutritionists, psychologists and specialists in physical sciences, nutrition education and movement. The primary aim of the meetings should be to make parents aware of the condition of risk to which the child is exposed, because often the parents first do not recognize a problem in childhood obesity. Only then we can explain how we can help our child, and ourselves, to change our lifestyle.