According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of overweight or obese infants and young children (0 to 5 years) spiked from 32 million worldwide in 1990 to 42 million in 2013. “Urbanisation, increased reliance on and access to convenience food, and a growing emphasis on sedentary behaviour and screen time from a young age, all place children at a far higher risk of being overweight than previously,” says Cape Town dietitian Joanna Wilson.
Equally worrying, is that many parents of overweight children are unaware of the problem. According to a study published in the online journal Pediatrics, about half the parents of overweight or obese children don’t think their kids are overweight.
So how can you tell? According to dietitian Shana Terhart, the WHO growth charts are commonly used in order to determine healthy weight. “These charts give us an indication of the risk of malnutrition, while also taking into consideration the parents’ height and weight.”
Could it just be puppy fat?
Alyssa Lundahl, a lead researcher at the University of Nebraska, found that parents were far more likely to miss the fact that children aged 2 to 5 were overweight compared with older children. “As kids get older, parents realise it’s not just baby fat anymore, and the kids are not going to grow out of it.” But does baby (or puppy) fat really exist, or is it a myth?
“Puppy fat isn’t a scientifically accurate term, but it is true that infants and children gain weight in the form of fat during the normal growth process as a result of an increase in fat cell numbers. During normal growth, the greatest percentage of body fat is set by 6 months of age. There is also usually an increase in body fat around the age of 6, especially in girls. The idea that puppy fat decreases is because children usually gain fat during the first few months of age and then have an increase in height which gives them the appearance of having grown into their weight,” says Terhart.
Why is being overweight a problem?
“Being overweight places children at risk of high cholesterol and high blood pressure (hypertension), pre-diabetes, joint and bone problems and sleep apnoea. Obese children are also more likely to become obese adults, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis,” says Wilson.
Excess weight also affects the confidence of children in many ways, says clinical psychologist Cristine Scolari. “They can be bullied or teased about their weight. They can feel isolated or ‘different’ from other children.”
How to talk to your child
According to Scolari, children are very sensitive about their weight, so it is important to approach the subject carefully. “Don’t ever make derogatory remarks about their weight – even comments made in jest or being teased playfully about their weight can have negative effects on the child.
“On the other hand, don’t deny there is a problem if your child is overweight. Sometimes children will approach their parents or make a remark in passing about their weight (like ‘I’m so fat…’). At this point, it would be prudent for the parent to acknowledge what the child has said by saying ‘It sounds to me as if you’re not happy about your weight… tell me more.’ Rather than dictating to the child what they should do, make a plan together.
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