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Are our kids destined to be obese?

It’s back to school and with the new school year it’s time to seriously think about the health of our kids. Ministry of Health figures recently showed that 10,000 more New Zealand children are now classified as overweight or obese compared to last year.

It’s a number that’s been steadily growing, putting us ahead (in a way we don’t want to be) of Australia and the US, where childhood obesity rates have plateaued.

Where Australia is investing heavily in healthy eating and activity programmes in schools, here in New Zealand there has been no comprehensive plan to tackle what is not just a serious health issue but an economic one as well. Just last week the government announced its intention to roll out a version of an Australian community-based programme that's helping reduce obesity there. This is definitely a great step in the right direction – but we can’t rely on this alone to solve the problem.

What can we do then, as parents and concerned citizens?

At a macro level, for a start, it’s an election year. The time will soon come to quiz your local political hopefuls about what plans they and their parties have to make some real and meaningful changes to this urgent health problem, and to use your power as a voter to make change happen.

At a family level, we have to think about how we can set our kids up to make good choices, and give them the best chance of growing into healthy-weight adults with great attitudes towards food and eating.

A fascinating study just released from the US has found that much of a child's "weight fate" is set by age 5, and that nearly half of kids who became obese by year nine were already overweight when they started their first year of school. That means what we do when kids are small to foster great eating habits is really important. It means modelling and establishing great habits at home, right from when they start eating solids.

That said, it’s never too late to make some healthy changes for the whole family. So at the start of the school year, here are some goals to consider adopting in your household to make everyone a little healthier.

Be adventurous. One of the best gifts you can give your child is to train their taste buds to enjoy many different flavours, not just sugar, fat and salt. A child may have to try something up to 10 times before they start to enjoy it, so don't give up. Take them shopping and let them choose new foods to get them excited.

Eat five or more colours a day. Different colours have different health benefits, so make it a fun adventure and get the kids involved in growing and cooking their colours, too.

Make water the main household drink. Buy cool water bottles for everyone, and serve water with meals. Keep juice and other sweet drinks as 'sometimes', not 'everyday' food.

Eat breakfast. Even if it is just fruit and a glass of milk, this teaches that some food in their stomach kick-starts the body for the day, giving energy for work, study and play.

Sit at the table to eat. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s becoming less and less common. Not only does sitting down at the table reduces snacking and grazing, it also teaches social skills such as table manners, conversation skills and patience.  Research has found that families who eat together are twice as likely to have five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; consume less fried food and sugary drinks; and have diets that are higher in fibre, calcium, iron, folate and vitamins.

Teach kids to cook. A love of cooking is another hugely valuable gift. When we know how to cook for ourselves, we’re able to take control of our own nutrition rather than leaving it to food manufacturers.

These steps, along with regular activity and limited junk food, may just help the next generation beat the statistics.


3 Comments. Add yours

We have 3 boys, 6, 5 and 3 and have been doing most of what you mention above with them. They are great at eating veges and rarely have anything but water to drink. I must say my biggest challenge is number 1, being adventurous! I love a range of foods but am NOT a confident cook so cooking up meals that are different makes me very nervous... However, i like the idea of letting them choose something different from the supermarket to try. I shall do that at my next shopping trip. Thank you for your insightful articles.
PS: one of my boys' favourite lunches at home is the smiley face lunch which i make up of a variety of veges to make a face; like carrot for eyes, tomatoes for ears, capsicum for mouth corn on cob for nose! Or whatever veges are in season. They LOVE it.

I must admit I feel generally proud that my kids eat a wide range of fruit, veges and flavours. They of course love sugary things too but we limit it to just treats where we can. I must admit I get so frustrated with many of our friends kids, who are largely being fed a diet of high fat, high salt foods, and as a result most of whom now suffer very limited taste buds. Its terribly difficult to feed these kinds of kids at BBQs when they say no to just about everything served. I know the parents think its easier now to say 'Yes' to all the foods they want to eat, instead of encouraging healthier options, but all its doing is setting their kids up for a lifetime of poor eating and health problems, yet they do nothing to change it. I think it is sad, and in some respects, feeding your kids poorly with food low in nutrients I feel is bordering on child neglect. We aren't perfect in our house, but we try and give the kids the best chance to eat a wide variety. One trap I know I fell into is only buying food I like. For instance, I dislike Brussels Sprouts after being fed mushy overboiled ones as a kid. I never bought them thinking the kids would hate them too. Guess what? Roasted, seasoned and drizzled with a touch of maple syrup my kids lap them up and want more! We all have things we can change in terms of our eating habits, its sometimes having the guts just to give it a go and try something new.

I totally agree with atradegal - well said. Our 3 kids were brought up the same way (in their 20's now) and a lot of their friends that visited were fussy eaters, so annoying when good food is put in front of them!! Our kids still have great appetites, can cook and eat healthily - sure they had their treats like everyone else, but TREAT is the key word. A lot of families sadly seem to have lost that over the years and fat/sugary food is given every single day. I just hate to see over weight children & children walking to school with a can of fizzy and a pie, so sad - you know their teen years are going to be miserable, and there is no need for it (rare medical conditions aside).