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.