Feed them right
A recent survey of teens across city schools revealed that 16 per cent were obese. Childhood obesity is at an all-time high, and experts are sending out a warning to parents to supervise nutrition and activity
If recent statistics are any indication, young India is heavier today than ever before. In Mumbai alone, 21 per cent of school children between the ages of 11 and 15 are overweight; while 16 per cent are obese, according to a 2019 study conducted by Aastha Healthcare. India is home to the second-highest number of obese children in the world, with 14.4 million reported cases, as per a 2019 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This study went on to name India as one of the 70 countries globally where the incidence of obesity has doubled since 1980.
These figures paint a grim picture for an entire generation of Indians who are now at an increased risk of high cholesterol and blood pressure (risk factors for cardiovascular diseases). They are also more likely to suffer from impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance (which contribute to Type 2 diabetes), contend with breathing problems such as sleep apnoea and asthma, and may experience a range of joint problems at a much earlier age, says Dr Aparna Govil Bhasker, a bariatric and laparoscopic surgeon at Apollo Spectra Hospitals. Obesity can also have lasting impact on a child's physical health, social and emotional well-being, and self-esteem. It has often been associated with poor academic performance and a reduced quality of life.
Dr Aparna Bhasker
What's making our children obese?
Poor dietary choices and low physical activity levels are the two most significant contributors to obesity, says Dr Bhasker. "The impact of these risk factors is moderated by factors such as the child's age and gender. Parenting styles and lifestyles also play a role. Further, environmental factors such as school policies and demographics can influence a child's eating habits and lifestyles," she explains. She points out that the role of genetics in influencing childhood obesity is only now being understood. "While certain studies have found that genes influence a child's BMI by 25 to 40 per cent, this genetic susceptibility must be coupled with contributing environmental and behavioural factors to affect the child's weight. So, while genetics does play a role in the development of obesity, it is not the cause of the dramatic increase in childhood obesity that is being observed in modern Indian society," she explains.
Setting them right
. Lead by example: "Children learn by modelling their parents' and peers' preferences, intake and willingness to try new foods. So, it is especially important for parents to ensure the availability of, and repeated exposure to, healthier food choices so that they can help their children develop a preference for these foods. Studies have also found that families who eat together consume more healthy foods, while eating out or watching something while eating is associated with a higher intake of fat.
Further, while authoritative feeding (determining which foods are offered, allowing the child to choose and providing rationale for healthy options) is associated with positive cognitions about healthy food, authoritarian restriction of junk food is also associated with an increased desire for unhealthy food and, consequently, higher weight," says Amreen Shaikh, head dietician and nutritionist at Wockhardt Hospital.
. Involve them: Start a weekly ritual by engaging children in grocery shopping. You can use this opportunity to educate them about real (whole) foods and fake (packaged or refined) foods, suggests nutritionist and lifestyle educator Karishma Chawla. She also suggests introducing one new food item a week and asking your children to research its benefits, besides having a collective discussion about food choices with them. Involve your children in cooking a meal or dish once a week. If space permits, encourage gardening.
. Make it fun: Instead of banning all refined, processed and packaged foods from your home, Chawla asks that you teach your children about the 80:20 per cent ratio. So, 80 per cent of the food they eat must be healthy and nutritious. Be creative in how you address healthy eating. For instance, you could keep a box of nuts (almonds and walnuts) in the living room and have each family member eat five every day and make a note next to the box. This simple exercise teaches your child accountability and helps create daily habits.
. Focus on the gut: Good digestion is the foundation for excellent health. An altered gut microbiome can interfere with energy metabolism, causing hormonal imbalance and insulin resistance. Make sure your child eats enough fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and yogurt. Add good fibre to feed the healthy gut bacteria, shares Chawla.
. Nourish the body: Rather than merely restricting unhealthy foods, which can give rise to withdrawal symptoms, encourage your child to eat more foods that aid the functioning of the gut and balance their hormones. At the same time, make sure your child is eating three palm-sized servings of protein a day; this balances their hormones and can go a long way in preventing obesity.
Healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and raw nuts, are also beneficial, says Chawla. Coconut oil is anti-inflammatory and can improve the functioning of the thyroid gland. Make sure your child is consuming foods that are rich in calcium and iron. Check their B12 and D3 levels every six months — optimal Vitamin status can prevent deficiencies and decrease cravings. Finally, add magnesium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, avocado, almonds, cashew, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and whole grains — balancing blood sugar is the key to balancing hormones and preventing obesity.
Healthy for life
My son, Akshay, was introduced to processed and refined food when he joined preschool and was often served packaged noodles and biscuits as snacks. He began developing a preference for packaged foods and by the age eight, he was only eating this. He would ask for vada pav and pav bhaji every day.
We noticed that his weight was on the rise but did not worry about it. That changed when his tuition teacher called me one afternoon to let me know that my son was not able to cope with studies. He was always drowsy and unable to focus on what he was being taught. He was 11 at the time, and we consulted a doctor who asked us to test his Vitamin B12 and D3 levels. He proved to be quite deficient in these nutrients. The doctor also ran a hormone test and we were shocked to learn that because of all the junk food he was eating, his hormonal levels were all over the place, which couldn't be corrected via medication.
The key lay in amending his diet. We consulted a nutritionist who educated us about healthy food. It was a slow and lengthy process — my son had not tasted healthy, home-cooked meals in years. We used creative techniques to include healthy ingredients in his preferred foods such as mixing oats into potato patties. As a family, we changed our eating habits as well. By the end of six months, my son had dropped his weight from 51 kg to 40 kg. He was also energetic and optimistic. To this day, he has maintained his weight within the recommended range and is conscious about his choice of food.
Pratiksha Vyas, teacher
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