Bring­ing up happy and healthy chil­dren

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Healthy Families - John Sharry is founder of the Par­ents Plus Char­ity and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the UCD School of Psy­chol­ogy. John Sharry Send your queries to [email protected]­times.com

De­spite more wide­spread ac­cess to health in­for­ma­tion than ever be­fore, our na­tion’s health is much poorer than a gen­er­a­tion ago. Chil­dren and adults live in­creas­ingly seden­tary life­styles, dom­i­nated by screens and disconnected from the out­doors and the nat­u­ral world.

Our col­lec­tive diet has de­te­ri­o­rated dras­ti­cally. We are home-cook­ing less, eat­ing fewer veg­eta­bles and con­sum­ing much higher amounts of sug­ary, high-fat and pro­cessed foods. The ef­fects of these life­style changes are ev­ery­where to be seen. Rates of obe­sity are sky-rock­et­ing, with the av­er­age adult nearly 20 pounds heav­ier than 20 years ago. The as­so­ci­ated health prob­lems of type 2 di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, strokes and can­cers are all in­creas­ing, as are men­tal-health prob­lems such as de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, not to men­tion a lack of en­ergy and fit­ness for life.

Most shock­ing are the in­creased rates of child­hood obe­sity, plac­ing the next gen­er­a­tion on tar­get for an epi­demic of health prob­lems at even higher rates than their par­ents have ex­pe­ri­enced.

Liv­ing in an un­healthy en­vi­ron­ment

Par­ents of­ten re­ceive the lion’s share of the blame for the changed life­styles of their chil­dren, when this is usu­ally un­fair and does not take into ac­count the chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment we are now all liv­ing in. Fam­ily life is much more rushed than ever be­fore, with many work­ing par­ents fac­ing long hours and long com­mutes, mean­ing there is less time than ever for fam­ily ac­tiv­i­ties and to pre­pare home-cooked meals. Rushed fam­i­lies are eat­ing out more, re­ly­ing on food on the go, eat­ing more take­aways etc – chil­dren and adults who are tired or stressed tend to eat more junk food, make poorer food choices and spend more time on screens.

In ad­di­tion, chil­dren and fam­i­lies are bom­barded with ad­ver­tis­ing and pres­sure to eat un­healthy foods. Fast food is clev­erly mar­keted to chil­dren and comes with the prom­ise of a free toy (How can car­rots or broc­coli com­pete?).

Even nor­mal restau­rants of­fer lim­ited healthy choices to chil­dren and meals usu­ally come in over-sized por­tions. In su­per­mar­kets, pro­cessed foods are of­ten laced with sugar or other un­healthy in­gre­di­ents and we are sur­rounded with spe­cial of­fers and pro­mo­tions to get us to con­sume more and more.

The mo­tive of the food in­dus­try which sur­rounds us is not to im­prove our chil­dren’s long-term health but sim­ply to en­cour­age them to con­sume more and more of their un­healthy prod­ucts – the ideal for them is to get us and our chil­dren ad­dicted in the long term.

The “buy three for the price of two” proves an ir­re­sistible “bar­gain”, when we did not even need to buy one in the first place!

The so­cial en­vi­ron­ment in which chil­dren are brought up is not much bet­ter. When chil­dren go to par­ties or visit rel­a­tives or even at­tend nor­mal ac­tiv­i­ties, they are so fre­quently given treat foods and sug­ary drinks that these foods are now con­sumed by many on a daily ba­sis and have be­come part of their nor­mal diet.

This so­ci­ety in which we now live is such a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in the obe­sity cri­sis that the ed­i­tor of the lead­ing med­i­cal jour­nal The Lancet con­cluded that the “in­creas­ing weight of peo­ple world­wide is the re­sult of a nor­mal re­sponse by nor­mal peo­ple to an ab­nor­mal en­vi­ron­ment”.

Bring­ing up healthy chil­dren As a par­ent, you have be more vig­i­lant than ever be­fore to en­sure your chil­dren have the best healthy start to their lives. You can’t let things drift, as your chil­dren will surely adopt the trends of in­creas­ing con­sump­tion of un­healthy food and in­creas­ing in­ac­tiv­ity on screens.

It is im­per­a­tive to take ac­tion so as to es­tab­lish good healthy habits that can pro­tect your chil­dren against the pres­sures they are un­der. The im­por­tant thing is to ques­tion the con­sumerist so­ci­ety that sur­rounds us and to take a stand against it. While you can’t con­trol the en­vi­ron­ment out­side your home, you can take steps to change the en­vi­ron­ment within your home.

For ex­am­ple, you can make one or two pow­er­ful de­ci­sions such as:

Only hav­ing treat foods in the house once a week rather than ev­ery day

Ban­ning sug­ary drinks and only hav­ing wa­ter or milk as drink op­tions at meals

Hav­ing more home-cooked meals in a week

Tak­ing time to in­volve your chil­dren in pre­par­ing a meal once a week

Sit­ting down with your chil­dren to eat and hav­ing time to chat over meals

Walk­ing to school with your chil­dren rather than driv­ing

Of­fer­ing only healthy snacks such as car­rot sticks or fruit dur­ing the week

In­creas­ing your chil­dren’s in­ter­est in veg­eta­bles by grow­ing some in the gar­den

Plan­ning the weekly shop in ad­vance to avoid im­pulse buys

Go­ing for a fam­ily walk in na­ture ev­ery week­end

Hav­ing screen-free times and places in the house (such as meal times and berrooms)

Cre­at­ing re­laxed screen-free bed­time rou­tines

The key is to make small steps and to build over time into good habits that make the dif­fer­ence in the long term. The new Start cam­paign sup­ported by Safe­food, the HSE and Healthy Ire­land lists lots of sim­ple and prac­ti­cal steps that any par­ents can make to im­prove their own and their chil­dren’s health and well­be­ing.

Six ar­ti­cles Over the com­ing weeks I will be writ­ing a fur­ther five ar­ti­cles on over­com­ing the chal­lenge of bring­ing up healthy and happy chil­dren. We will look at how you can es­tab­lish good rou­tines around meal­times and healthy eat­ing as well as the im­por­tance of good bed­time and sleep rou­tines (which are so im­por­tant to over­all health).

We will also look at how to man­age the chal­lenge of screen­time and stop it dom­i­nat­ing fam­ily life.

Fi­nally, we will look at at the im­por­tance of main­tain­ing con­nected and warm fam­ily re­la­tion­ships which are the ba­sis to good men­tal health and well­be­ing for ev­ery­one. In the ar­ti­cle next week, we will look how to cre­ate fam­ily habits around healthy eat­ing and in­creased ac­tiv­ity that be­come in­te­grated into your day and easy to sus­tain.

Most shock­ing are the in­creased rates of child­hood obe­sity, plac­ing the next gen­er­a­tion on tar­get for an epi­demic of health prob­lems

PHO­TO­GRAPH: IS­TOCK

Take time to in­volve your chil­dren in pre­par­ing a meal once a week.

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