Childhood Obesity
Childhood Obesity

In the past year, children’s diets and eating habits have rarely been out of the headlines. Dietitian Juliette Kellow looks at the size of the child obesity problem and gives parents some top tips for keeping their children healthy and in great shape.

Childhood Obesity

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

The Shocking Facts

Childhood obesity is big news and unfortunately, like the waistbands of our nation’s children and teenagers, it’s set to get even bigger.

Childhood Obesity Statistics

Statistics from the most recent large-scale survey in the UK shockingly reveal that 25 percent of boys and 33 percent of girls aged between two and 19 years are overweight or obese – and there’s little sign the incidence is slowing.

Obesity currently costs the country around £2 billion annually and shortens lives by nine years, due to the associated health problems. Some health experts even believe we’ll soon see parents outliving their children.

Equally worrying is the fact that parents are getting so used to seeing overweight kids, they don’t recognise their own children are obese.

Last year, a study from the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, revealed that:

  • three quarters of parents failed to recognise their child was overweight.
  • 33 percent of mums and 57 percent of dads considered their child’s weight to be ‘about right’ when, in fact, they were obese.
  • one in ten parents expressed some concern about their child being underweight when they were actually a normal, healthy weight.

Risks of Obesity in Children

Health experts are particularly worried about this in view of the health risks linked with obesity, which include heart disease, certain cancers, high blood pressure, joint problems, psychological difficulties and diabetes.

An American study in the 90s showed that overweight teenagers were eight and a half times more likely to develop high blood pressure and almost 2 and a half times as likely to have high blood cholesterol levels.

Meanwhile, in recent years there’s been an alarming rise in the number of children being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a condition that’s typically seen in overweight middle-aged adults.

Diabetes UK believes there are currently around 100 children with the condition, although some experts believe the figure could be as high as 1,400 based on the number of overweight and obese schoolchildren there are in the UK. Experts relate this solely to the increase in childhood obesity.

Why are our Children Getting so Fat?

Unfortunately, there’s no mystery! Quite simply, many children do little exercise and eat a diet that’s packed with junk food. (See also Children's Portion Sizes)

School Dinners and Junk Food

Numerous studies confirm what celeb chef Jamie Oliver discovered when he started looking more closely at school dinners – that children consume too much sugar, salt and saturates and eat only two portions of fruit and veg each day.

The problems start early in life. A survey by Mother & Baby magazine in 2004 revealed that nine out of 10 toddlers eat junk food, with chocolate, biscuits, crisps, fish fingers, chips, cake and chicken nuggets appearing in their top 10 favourite foods.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg – children's diets generally get worse as they get older and more food is eaten outside the home. Indeed, according to school dinners catering company Sodexho, eight to 16 year olds spend £549 million a year on the way to and from school, mostly on confectionery, crisps and fizzy drinks – an increase of 213 percent in just seven years!

How Can We Stop our Children from Piling on the Pounds?

Unsurprisingly, most health experts agree one of the most important factors in the fight against childhood obesity is to encourage healthy eating habits from an early age.

The Importance of Exercise

Two recent studies have highlighted the importance of exercise during childhood.

The first, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at how body fat and cardiovascular fitness in children were affected by the intensity of exercise and the amount of exercise taken. Almost 800 children aged between nine and 10 years were included in the study.

The researchers discovered that children who did more than 40 minutes of vigorous activity a day had less body fat and better cardiovascular fitness than those who did less than 18 minutes a day and exercised gently or moderately.

The researchers conclude that physical activity that’s vigorous and maintained for a longer time may be more likely to prevent obesity and improve cardiovascular fitness in children than lower intensity activities carried out for a shorter period of time.

Renowned medical journal "The Lancet" has also published a study suggesting that children should do at least 90 minutes of physical activity a day, rather than the recommended one hour.

More than 1,700 nine and 15-year-old children took part in the study, which monitored their physical activity levels and a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, insulin resistance and body fat.

The researchers found that greater levels of activity lowered the risk factors for heart disease. Nine-year-olds who did almost two hours of moderate to vigorous activity, and 15-year-olds who did almost 90 minutes a day had the lowest risk.

WLR Says:

These two studies highlight just how important it is to get children into the exercise habit at a young age, not just to help them maintain a suitable body weight, but also to help lower their risk of health problems in later life such as heart disease.

The Lancet study is so important that the Department of Health has promised to consider the implications carefully. A spokesperson said, “This is an interesting and well-executed study. It is important that we keep our recommendations under review as evidence like this comes to light.”

When it comes to encouraging children to get active, it’s important for adults to set a good example. If parents lead inactive lifestyles, it’s likely that children will follow the same pattern. So make it your mission to get the whole family involved in activities you can all enjoy together. As well as passing on the fitness bug to all of your family, it will also you help you lose weight and give you a fitter, firmer body. Here are some ideas for getting fit as a family…

Go for a Dip

Take the whole family swimming and make the most of your time by doing at least 15 minutes of proper swimming (you’ll burn 175 calories).

To make it more fun, encourage older children to swim along with you and set mini challenges, such as who can swim the fastest length. If you have younger children take it in turns with your partner (or hook up with another mum or dad with kids of a similar age) to do lengths whilst the other monitors the children.

Walk this Way

Walking not only burns more than 150 calories in 30 minutes but it can be a great way of spending quality time with your partner and kids whilst keeping fit and getting plenty of fresh air.

Keep the pace brisk by putting babies and toddlers in prams and encourage older children to ride alongside on bikes. Of course, with little ones in a pram and older ones on their bikes there’s nothing to stop you picking up the pace even more by breaking into a run and burning up to 400 more calories per hour!

Get on your Bike

Cycling burns more 650 calories an hour and is another fun, family activity.

Many people with young children rule it out but if you invest in a child seat for the back of your bike and a well-fitting safety helmet for both you and your child there’s no reason why you can’t take children along with you. Slightly older children can ride tandem with the addition of an add-on bike that can be fitted to the back of your cycle too.

Play Yourself Fit

It’s surprising how many calories you can burn simply by playing games with your children in the park or garden such as swing ball, football, bat and ball, and so on.

For example, 30 minutes of football burns 200 calories, 30 minutes of ball games burns 168 calories and 15 minutes of chasing games burns 185 calories. Your kids will love you for it, too!

Go for the Bounce

Get the whole family active by investing in a trampoline for the garden. Bouncing up and down for 20 minutes will burn more than 160 calories and will help to tone legs and thighs.

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More Info

Preventing Childhood Obesity - A report from the BMA highlighting the main aspects of childhood nutrition and exercise, with recommendations for tackling obesity in the UK.


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