Maria Lally tack­les a del­i­cate is­sue

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

When her 8-year-old daugh­ter started a new school in a new town, Kim was heart­bro­ken — if not al­to­gether sur­prised — when she came home af­ter her first day and said some older boys had called her fat.

“When went to the lo­cal in­fant school where she’d known all her class­mates from play­group days,” says Kim. “She’s al­ways been plumper than the other chil­dren but they gen­uinely didn’t no­tice or care.

“When we moved, it was a wake-up call. She was clearly big­ger than the other chil­dren and, for the first time, they no­ticed — and they teased her. I wanted to help her lose weight but I didn’t want to dam­age her self-es­teem.”

It’s a com­mon con­cern. I have two daugh­ters — aged 4 and 7 — and I’ve talked to them about ev­ery­thing from stranger dan­ger to death. But I shy away from talk­ing about their weight, fear­ful of mak­ing them feel bad about their bod­ies or, worse, trig­ger­ing an eat­ing dis­or­der.

But is this fear mak­ing chil­dren fat­ter? Pos­si­bly. A large study from Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don and the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) last month found that num­ber of obese chil­dren and ado­les­cents (aged 5 to 19) world­wide has risen ten­fold in the past four decades. In 2016, the obe­sity rate was se­cond high­est in chil­dren in the high-in­come English­s­peak­ing re­gion, (which in­cludes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ire­land and the United King­dom). The re­searchers, who found that four in 10 chil­dren aged 5 to 19 are over­weight, have warned of an “ab­so­lute cri­sis” in child health in­clud­ing a greater fu­ture risk of heart disease, cancer and di­a­betes.

“The trend pre­dicts a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren and ado­les­cents grow­ing up obese,” says Ma­jid Ez­zati, the Im­pe­rial Col­lege pro­fes­sor who led the study.

Dr Fiona Bull, from the WHO, says: “We are sur­rounded by en­vi­ron­ments that mar­ket un­healthy, high-fat, high-sugar, high-calo­rie food. That’s what is on the tele­vi­sion, that’s what is pro­moted at bus stops.”

But do par­ents have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to act, too? Yes, ac­cord­ing to Matt Roberts, per­sonal trainer and fa­ther of two. “Things have gone too far, and to­day’s par­ents are fear­ful of speak­ing to their child about their weight. But you can do it del­i­cately, ap­pro­pri­ately and — rather than sin­gling a child out — you can tackle it as a house­hold.”

Roberts says this means lead­ing by ex­am­ple, and be­ing hon­est about your own eat­ing and ex­er­cise habits. “Have a kitchen detox so there aren’t bis­cuits and soft drinks around to tempt them. Don’t ban treats en­tirely, but limit them to out­side the house, where you have less con­trol any­way.

“Se­condly, get off the sofa your­self. Cy­cle or dog walk to­gether and make it so­cial by invit­ing their friends along, too. En­cour­age them into sports and try dif­fer­ent ones un­til they find some­thing they love.”

Roberts says it’s no co­in­ci­dence that child­hood obe­sity rates were lower in 1975. “There were no gad­gets or so­cial me­dia to keep them inside and in­ac­tive. If your child is un­der 11, set screen time lim­its. But if you have a 14-year-old? Good luck with that. I have chil­dren my­self, so I know it’s hard. All we can do as par­ents is keep try­ing to en­gage with them, en­cour­age them into sport and limit junk food at home.”

He also ad­vises talk­ing in terms of health and not weight. “Don’t tell them they need to lose a spe­cific amount of weight — don’t bring num­bers into it. Rather, talk about how re­duc­ing sugar and get­ting out in the fresh air will make them feel en­er­gised and healthy, how it will make them bet­ter at their sport, and so on.”

“I of­ten find anx­i­ety about talk­ing to our chil­dren about weight is rooted in our own child­hoods,” says Dr Rachel An­drew, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of The Su­per­mum Myth. “I’ve rarely met a child who is over­weight in a fam­ily where ev­ery­one is a nor­mal weight. Of­ten, one or more par­ents are over­weight or have strug­gled with their weight in the past.

“These par­ents of­ten worry about hurt­ing their child’s feel­ings or trig­ger­ing an eat­ing dis­or­der, but I be­lieve those par­ents will nat­u­rally be more sen­si­tive to their child’s feel­ings so they shouldn’t worry.”

Dr An­drew says par­ents should also re­mem­ber that some chil­dren may be more prone to weight gain than oth­ers and will there­fore need an ex­tra (but dis­creet) eye on them: “Lots of fac­tors come into a child’s weight, other than diet and ex­er­cise, like dif­fer­ent body shapes, me­tab­o­lisms and tem­per­a­ments. Some chil­dren re­spond well to lim­its. Some chil­dren love play­ing foot­ball, whereas oth­ers like seden­tary things such as art.”

And then, of course, there’s the in­ex­tri­ca­ble link be­tween food and love.

“As par­ents, we feel our pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to nour­ish our child. But re­mem­ber, not gen­tly and kindly tack­ling a weight is­sue with them will do them more harm than good.”

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