With 300,000 children in Ireland being obese, experts say it’s time for parents to start tackling the problem head on. Phoebe Doyle gets the facts about the fat and seeks solutions.
More worrying even than the number of children obese in Ireland right now, is perhaps the fact that this number is rising… and fast. In fact, it’s estimated that around 10,000 more children become obese, in Ireland alone, each year. What the World Health Organisation (WHO) refer to as an ‘international epidemic’ has certainly hit our shores big time. Around 22% of Irish girls and 19% of Irish boys are either overweight or obese.
Time for Change
At least it’s not gone un-noticed. Schools are now more readily encouraging healthy lunches to be brought in, with some having rules about how many snack/treat-based foods are allowed. The Irish Government announced last year that they’re in discussions about restricting the number of fast food outlets near to schools.
What’s more, those of you who’ve dined in hotels recently may have noticed a disclaimer on the kid’s menu saying that they’ve signed up to a healthy eating initiative, launched by the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF). This is a pledge of commitment to providing food with less salt, more vegetables and less fried food.
Why are our kids getting fatter?
Personal Trainer Scott Marsh says there’s really no simple answer to this one: “One of the many factors is that children (and adults too) are getting more and more sedentary each year; some blame technology, some even blame the recession.”
Speak to most adults and they’ll recall childhoods packed with climbing trees, playing sport and running around in the streets. Scott notes: “Yet today’s children and adolescents spend most of their days cooped up in front of the latest console re-enacting a life of activity they could be having. The reasons behind why kids are spending more time indoors are varied, but with the press reporting on how dangerous the streets are getting day by day and with technology providing a stimulation at the touch of a button, it’s no surprise that many are veering clear of traditional activity and play.”
As well as social reasons there is, of course, the hot topic; nutrition. “Our food quality is getting worse by the decade, which certainly doesn’t help matters. But a more pressing issue is the lack of time that everybody has”, says Scott, adding: “Parents are too busy and too stressed to cook appropriately for their kids anymore. We must remember that children are greatly influenced by their parents. If their parents don’t have time to look after themselves by eating a healthy balanced diet as well as taking part in regular activity, where are the children supposed to learn such essential habits?”
Another pressing, and depressing, issue is the stress that many children are increasingly placed under. Scott’s seen the effect of this time and time again: “It’s not uncommon for children to develop binge-type eating from the stress put on them to achieve throughout their school life, and now with the added concern of financial strains many families are in right now. The stress is on for kids in Ireland today and one way of seemingly dealing with such pressure is by turning to food.”
It’s clearly time we took action…
The level of physical activity our children do can have an enormous impact on their weight, as well as their overall well-being. Our angst about them going out these days, coupled with the amount of technology we have on offer, sees our kids adopting ‘staring at a screen’ as the default position.
Scott says to try and exercise with your children: “Show them the benefits of working hard and praise them for doing well. Find an activity the whole family will enjoy. Remember you’re their most prominent role model.”
“Set them physical challenges and goals. Things that will stimulate their mind and that they will need to work towards to achieve.” For younger children this might be to run, or skip a bit further, for older ones you might start improving on sprint times – make it fun!
“Let your children try new sports”, says Scott, who firmly believes there’s a sport for everyone. So if they aren’t into the usual football or rugby, seek out what’s going on at the local leisure centre or gym for young people.
Food, Glorious Food
The solution doesn’t stop with exercise; it needs to be in partnership with diet. National statistics show that a whopping 40% of children have excessive levels of fat intake through their food consumption. What’s more over 60% don’t get enough fibre.
But those of us with children know that getting them to eat healthily, it ain’t always easy! Food labelling and advertising is mightily persuasive and, while the government are set to review the rules on this, that which is aimed at kids can be hugely powerful.
Scott says it’s time to get back to basics, using fresh ingredients, cooking from scratch and cooking with the kids: “Getting them involved in making their own food serves to get them interested in produce and also, you’ll find, they’re much more likely to eat something if they’ve made it themselves.”
The key is making healthy eating fun: Think fruit kebabs (pieces of fresh fruit on kebab sticks), think fresh veg sticks with dips, like hummus or guacamole. Think homemade pizzas stacked with veggies.
“It’s all about becoming a healthier, more food-savvy, family together. It’s about helping them realise just how good healthy food can make us feel. Without concentrating on their weight, without laying on stress and pressure (which can lead to binge eating), this well-thought-out approach can really impact the whole family”, says Scott.
With almost 1 in 4 children now overweight in Ireland, there’s really only one conclusion: We need to make changes now. Obesity can lead to so many problems in later life, diabetes and heart disease to name just two.
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. Healthy eating and getting fit can be enormously enjoyable and, done together, can be a fabulous family bonding endeavour.
Ditch the Junk: Have healthy snacks as your weapon!
DITCH the crisps. SWAP for dried apple rings.
DITCH the biscuits. SWAP for flavoured rice cakes.
DITCH the fries. SWAP for sweet potato home-made wedges.
DITCH the sweets. SWAP for raisins and dried apricots.
DITCH the ice-cream. SWAP for frozen yoghurt.
Upping exercise is easy…
ü Always opt for stairs not lifts when in hotels or stores.
ü Play with them; what child can resist an offer of a game of football?!
ü Give them options; have lots of equipment, from hula hoops to hockey sticks.
ü Instead of driving everywhere, could they walk, scoot or cycle?
ü Limit TV and computer games.