Blame it on parents and schools that put their kids’ scholastic achievements ahead of physical activity and do not curtail the consumption of unhealthy food. The end result is a health condition that not only makes kids over-weight, but also undermines their confidence, making them vulnerable to many diseases in their adulthood.
Yes, we are talking about childhood obesity, a problem, doctors say, is showing a shocking upsurge. The replacement of sports culture with computer games and consumption of aerated drinks, drinks with preservatives in tetra packs, pizzas, burgers and other fast foods almost every day is causing kids to put on excess weight.
Dr S Nagesh, pediatrician, Mallya Hospital agrees. Over the past few years, he has observed obesity rates increase from 4 per cent to 9 per cent in children aged over four years. “Obesity is becoming common. Children these days are eating a lot of food filled with calories and they all cause obesity,” says Dr Nagesh. Children who have obesity running in the family have a tougher time, he adds.
Kids have easy access to junk foods even in school, notes Dr Pramila Kalra, Associate Professor and Consultant in Endocrinology, M S Ramaiah Medical College and Memorial Hospital. She points out that the callous attitude of parents may add to the problem. “Parents sometimes tend to go for shortcuts to save time, and end up feeding kids a lot of unhealthy food. They may give kids a lot of junk food, which kids may like, thinking that if they refuse, they are depriving the kids of their childhood,” observes Dr Kalra and adds, “This is not a true notion.” Warning of long-term consequences, Dr Kalra says that obese kids run a high risk of early diabetes and atherosclerosis which may later precipitate early heart ailments at a young age.
She also suggests alternatives. “Many foods like pizzas, burgers, juices can be made more healthy by changing some of the ingredients. All foods can be made healthy by adding less oil, less sugar and adding more fibre in the form of vegetables and salads,” she explains. She also says, “Obesity does not discriminate between boys and girls. Both sexes are prone to become obese.”
Gender issues in obesity?
On the other hand, Dr Chandrika Rao, Head of Paediatrics, from the same hospital, says that girls run a higher risk of getting obese than boys. While nutrition and wrong eating habits are equal in both genders, girls, especially during the age of puberty at about 13 years, tend to put on weight and they are predisposed more than boys to early obesity, says Dr Rao. “All children should be discouraged to eat tetra pack items and say no to chaats as it may tax the health. Parents must watch their children’s food habits and encourage them to take up sports like cycling, swimming and games involving running and can also send them to camps, while monitoring them for injuries.”
Meanwhile, nutritionists have a different view. It is not obesity, but overweight levels that are increasing, says Dr Anura Kurpad, Professor and Head- Nutrition, St John’s Research Institute. Obesity is prevalent among all ages, Dr Kurpad says. He adds that while there is no single solution to the problem of childhood obesity, urban environments are unsuitable for childhood activity because of lack of playgrounds. Unsafe public spaces, traffic congestion, stress and unlit streets all add up to children staying indoors.
The need to count calories
Dr Kurpad says that parents and schools should understand calorie counts. “They should keep track of the calories in the food and the amount of activity needed to expend the calories eaten in snacks,” he says. He points out that it is not easy to get rid of calories that can be consumed in 5 to 10 minutes as a snack of energy dense food. “Even a samosa has 300 calories. It is eaten in a few minutes but burning it off would take 75 minutes of brisk walking,” he warns.
Making exercise fun
Children should explore more options of outdoor activities, says Ida Lennora Mark, Senior Physiotherapist, Hospital for Orthopaedics, Sports Medicine, Arthritis and Trauma (HOSMAT).
It is important to beat a sedentary lifestyle that is resulting from excessive watching of television, time spent on social-networking and computer gaming. She insists that children should explore options in physical activity.
“It’s not surprising that overweight kids often don’t like to exercise,” says Ida. She adds, “They tend to avoid situations like joining a gym class or a sport. But avoiding exercise is not the answer.” She suggests that for starters, brisk walking can be prescribed rather than jogging. “Slow to moderate-intensity and non-impact workouts, bike riding, swimming, skating, crunches, walking up and down stairs are good options. Dumb-bells can also be used,” she says and insists that exercises should be made more fun to encourage kids to continue with them. “Set goals and keep records to see improvements. Children enjoy hula-joops, trekking, kickboxing, basketball, tennis and also can include dancing,” she says.
Effects on mental health
Overweight children, along with health problems may also face bullying and peer adjustment issues, and parents play the greatest role in helping them, says Dr K John Vijay Sagar, Associate Professor- Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS). “Obese kids face bullying from peers which badly affects their self-esteem and may lead to depression. They compare themselves with other kids and may isolate themselves,” he says. The health conditions resulting from obesity may depress them further and impact academic performance.
Dr Sagar says that parents have to first address the cause of obesity and ensure that their kids follow prescribed diet regimes and activities.
“They must also build their child’s self-esteem by saying that they are not different from others and ensure they are not isolated and mingle with other kids. Constant motivation is essential,” he says.