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Fated to be fat?

As a new US report indicates obesity in kids is still rising, Better Health asks experts for top tips on getting youngsters to eat healthily from the very beginning

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The US has been in the news for its battle against obesity. A fast-food culture, oversized portions and sedentary lifestyles have all made the problem worse over recent decades, and suggestions of a plateau in the crisis are ill-founded, according to a new report. 

The journal Pediatrics revealed the results of a study showing that 35.1 per cent of children in the country were overweight in 2016, a 4.7 per cent increase compared to 2014. This illustrates that obesity levels in America are still definitely on the up. 

“Focus on what you and your children should be eating, rather than talking frequently about what to avoid.”
-Dr Nitin Verma, Consultant Paediatrician and Allergist, DJMC
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The World Obesity Federation states that in the UAE childhood obesity levels will continue to rise to 14.62 per cent by 2020, up from 12.4 per cent in 2013. But it doesn’t have to be this way, say medical experts. Having a healthy diet and focusing on nutrition early on are recognised techniques to prevent the onset of obesity in children. Here are seven tips that can help parents push things in the right direction.

Focus on fruit

Dr Nitin Verma, Consultant Paediatrician and Allergist at King’s College Hospital London in Dubai’s Jumeirah Medical Centre (DJMC), says a good start is to encourage children to eat more fruit. “Fruit has plenty of natural sugar to satisfy your child’s sugar cravings: try a fruit smoothie instead of a milkshake, and if your child drinks juice ensure that it is 100 per cent juice without added sugars and limit these servings,” he says.

“Also keep whole fruit out where your children can see it. For example, a bowl with apples and bananas on the kitchen or dining table will make children consider fruit as an option for a snack. To make fruits and veggies more appealing, a little imagination can go a long way. You might consider shredding the vegetables and mixing them in other foods that your children like, or perhaps making desserts that are centred around fruit.”

Be positive

Dr Verma adds that the role of positive psychology is crucial. “Focus on what you and your children should be eating, rather than talking frequently about what to avoid,” he explains. “This keeps eating healthy as a positive action.” He also advises using hugs, praise and attention to reward children rather than using food for that. 

But a bit of bribery is ok

It used to be said that bribing children to eat healthy foods was counterproductive, undermining their intrinsic motivation and increasing the dislike. However, US child psychology researcher Lucy Cooke found no evidence for this in her team’s large-scale investigation of the issue titled Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children’s Enjoyment of Vegetables. It concluded rewarding children for tasting an initially disliked food produced sustained increases in acceptance, with no negative effects on likes. 

Early education about nutrition

Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director of the Clinical Nutrition Department at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), says education is the key to success. “Ensure that children learn about the basics of nutrition and healthy eating at an early age so that they make their own good choices. Force-feeding a child never works. A child has to feel that his opinion is being considered and make sure eating is a stress-free affair and the child feels happy in the presence of food and not distressed.”

Involve kids in meal planning

Involving children in meal preparation and planning makes them feel like they have been consulted in the decision making and improves their acceptance of food, explains Dr Ayesh. 

Children are picky eaters and tend to avoid a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, so she suggests a fun technique whereby you get them to eat the colours of the rainbow and choose the vegetables and fruits from the grocery isles themselves as per the colours. “Ask your children to help you while preparing food by giving them simple tasks suitable to their age — this can also improve their acceptance of healthy food.” 

Encourage drinking enough water

One of the most common issues with child nutrition is inadequate intake of water, which can lead to numerous health problems including obesity. 

Children generally prefer drinking sugary liquids such as sweetened juices or sodas to water, but parents can buy colourful water bottles for children or put slices of fruits or herbs like kiwi, berries, mint or lemon in the water to attract the child. 

There are also a few mobile apps that aid in meeting this challenge. DHA, along with United For Healthier Kids (www.u4hk-me.com), launched the Tummy Fish App, which tells the story of a little fish that ends up in a child’s tummy and needs more water to stay healthy and happy. 

Be a role model

Finally — and crucially — nutritionists agree that if a parent is seen to be constantly on a diet or have erratic eating habits, children will grow up thinking that this sort of behaviour is normal. They urge people to be honest with themselves about the kinds of food messages they are sending to their ever-attentive offspring. Trust your body to tell you when you’re hungry and when you’re full and your kids will learn to do the same.

Help on a plate 

Besides educational programmes at schools, the Clinical Nutrition Department at DHA has launched the Healthy Plate Mate Project, which aims at introducing a specially designed curriculum for toddlers at nurseries in Dubai to tackle the growing concerns of paediatric obesity. Find out more at www.dha.gov.ae

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