The day the doc­tor told me my four-year-old son was over­weight

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - John Sharry

QI’ve just taken my four-yearold son to the GP as he had a bad cold and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the flu. While I was there, out of the blue the GP told me that my son was very over­weight. To be hon­est, I was a bit shocked. I al­ways thought he was a bit pudgy but didn’t think it was a big prob­lem. I was also a bit an­noyed that the GP told me, but now that I think about it, I re­alise he was only do­ing his job. Now I have been read­ing up about child­hood obe­sity and all the health prob­lems it brings and I re­alise I need to do some­thing about it. I should tell you I am quite over­weight my­self, and I never re­ally got rid of the baby weight. I also worry that my daugh­ter, who is six, might be over­weight as well, and their dad is even be­gin­ning to put on the pounds! Do you have tips as to how I can help my chil­dren? I don’t want to make a big deal of it or make them feel bad.

AAs par­ents, get­ting con­cern­ing news about the health of your child is al­ways up­set­ting and a big shock when it is un­ex­pected. Hear­ing that your child is over­weight can have a par­tic­u­lar up­set­ting im­pact as it is easy to feel blamed as a par­ent and guilty that you have not no­ticed be­fore. How­ever, it is im­por­tant to re­alise that child­hood obe­sity is as much a col­lec­tive so­ci­etal prob­lem as an in­di­vid­ual per­sonal prob­lem.

Col­lec­tively, we have got into habits of in­ac­tiv­ity and eat­ing un­healthy foods, and we are all liv­ing in a society that makes it much harder to raise healthy chil­dren: par­ents are work­ing longer hours and have less time to pre­pare food at home; shops and su­per­mar­kets bom­bard chil­dren with im­ages of sug­ary treats, mak­ing it hard to go out and not to be tempted; and many sup­pos­edly healthy foods mar­keted to chil­dren, such as break­fast ce­re­als and yo­gurts, con­tain large amounts of sugar.

This means that par­ent­ing and rais­ing healthy chil­dren is tougher than ever be­fore.

It is good that you un­der­stand the good in­ten­tions of your GP in rais­ing the is­sue with you. At the risk of up­set­ting their pa­tients, many health pro­fes­sion­als avoid giv­ing par­ents di­rect feed­back about their own or their chil­dren’s weight. This is de­spite the fact that be­ing over­weight and obese is a se­ri­ous prob­lem that poses many risks for a per­son’s health. Child­hood obe­sity is a par­tic­u­lar con­cern as once the pat­tern of putting on weight in child­hood is es­tab­lished, it is much harder to change.

How­ever, the good news is that there is a lot you can do to change things for your chil­dren and your fam­ily. It is a good thing that your GP raised the is­sue with you now, which gives you an op­por­tu­nity to take ac­tion while your chil­dren are young – even small changes made now will make a big dif­fer­ence in the fu­ture.

Cre­ate a healthy fam­ily plan

In help­ing chil­dren make pos­i­tive changes around food it is best not to fo­cus on “be­ing on a diet” or “los­ing weigh” but in­stead to fo­cus on pos­i­tive goals of such as eat­ing healthy nu­tri­tious foods and be­com­ing ac­tive, fit and full of en­ergy. To be suc­cess­ful it is usu­ally best to in­clude every­one and to make this a fam­ily plan. Don’t sin­gle out any child or per­son and in­stead see this as a project you are all work­ing on to­gether. Sit down with your part­ner and agree what you will do to­gether – the more you are both on board and com­mit­ted to mak­ing pos­i­tive changes, the eas­ier this will all be.

Build on your good habits

The eas­i­est way to make pos­i­tive changes is to build on the good habits you al­ready have. For ex­am­ple, your chil­dren may al­ready oc­ca­sion­ally eat a healthy veg­etable like peas, so you can make the de­ci­sion to have them more reg­u­larly for din­ner. Or you may al­ready walk a cou­ple of days to school so you can try to com­mit to do this ev­ery day (and buy brol­lies for every­one so you don’t have the ex­cuse of a wet day). Or if the chil­dren al­ready eat a healthy break­fast when you are not rushed, per­haps you can you cre­ate a good rou­tine that gives you ex­tra time in the morn­ing.

Make small change

Mak­ing a small change that be­comes a habit is much bet­ter than start­ing on a large change that is given up af­ter a few weeks. Be­low are some ideas to get you started – make sure to pick the eas­i­est change first!

Have din­ner at the ta­ble, so there is more time to eat and chat

Get chil­dren to help out with cook­ing food once a week. Read some healthy menus to­gether

Give chil­dren small por­tions to start and let them ask for more if they are hun­gry

Have only milk and wa­ter for chil­dren to drink reg­u­larly (fizzy drinks only for cel­e­bra­tions)

Re­move bis­cuits and treats from the house dur­ing the week – if they are there you will eat them

Send chil­dren to school with a lunch box con­tain­ing healthy food ev­ery day

Only have healthy snacks avail­able to kids at home, such as ap­ples, car­rot sticks, mange tout, etc.

Give chil­dren a choice only of healthy morn­ing ce­real such as por­ridge (let them choose what fruit to add)

Get help and sup­port

Reach and get sup­port to make the changes you want for your fam­ily. Your GP may be able to re­fer you to a di­eti­cian or other help­ful ser­vices. There is ex­cel­lent in­for­ma­tion on safe­food.eu in­clud­ing video tips, healthy fam­ily recipe ad­vice as well as ac­tiv­ity plan­ners and re­ward charts for chil­dren. Safe­food has also started a new me­dia cam­paign to help fam­i­lies get started on on the road to healthy life­styles, recog­nis­ing the chal­lenges that par­ents face, but with the pos­i­tive mes­sage that though “par­ent­ing is tough – you are tougher”. See makeas­t­art.ie.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

Eat­ing habits: We live in a society where, given the long hours par­ents work, it much is harder to raise healthy chil­dren.

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