Tips for battling childhood obesityIs your child fat? Inje University Seoul Paik Hospital obesity clinic doctor Kang Jae-heon says child obesity has been a growing problem in Korea and is more serious than adult obesity. It can not only lower life expectancy but also bring high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Dr. Kang says children follow the eating habits of parents and grandparents and therefore the condition is a family issue.
He says parents should be aware of obesity in children over the age of five. Distinguishing whether a child is suffering from obesity is not easy, since it is closely connected to growth and body fat. In the first year of life, an infant’s weight increases as the volume of fat cells increases. In the next five years, since the speed of growth is faster than putting on fat, the body fat percentage reduces with age. For this reason, even if a child is chubby, it is not a problem until five years of age. Then, weight increases faster than height and the number of fat cells goes up. It is the start of a point called adiposity rebound, a sharp rise in body mass index that later contributes to obesity in adulthood.
Dr. Kang says up to 75 percent of obesity during teen years continues into adulthood.
However, even when the child’s weight is 13 percent higher than average, the obesity resolves itself if the child’s height increases by at least five centimeters every year.
In order to prevent obesity in childhood, Dr. Kang says, it must be the parents that first make changes.
He says it is the parents who are the primary cause of obesity in their children. Apart from genetically inherited obesity, eating habits and healthy ideas about physical activity are the responsibility of the parents.
A common practice in Korea is for parents to buy greasy, high-calorie foods such as pizza or fried chicken for their children as a reward for getting high scores on tests at school. Dr. Kang says that such parents, lacking proper knowledge of nutrition, are the most relaxed about the weight of their children.
Such parents believe that even when their child is fat, the problem will naturally solve itself as the child gets taller. Especially during the weekend, many parents are non-active, spending the entire day either in bed or watching television. This only contributes to the obesity of the child.
Dr. Kang says treating childhood obesity should be a family activity. Parents who stay at home and send their children to the gym should not expect positive results. When it is the child alone who participates, any attempts at beating obesity will doubtlessly fail.
The doctor also says that the best way to prevent the child from suffering from obesity-related diabetes is to increase the burning of calories in everyday life. One way to do so is to increase the number and intensity of day-to-day activities. For example, while 96 kilocalories are burned when a child weighing 40 kilograms watches a soccer match on television lying down, 336 kilocalories are burned if they actively cheer during the same match.
It is good to reduce time spent on sedentary activities, such as computer games or television watching. One problem is the snacks a child consumes while watching television or playing games. Most such snacks are high in calories.
Making the child do chores at home is also a good way to burn calories, says Dr. Kang. Children who do not help out their parents when growing up often remain inactive unless forced to do chores that are personally related to them, becoming lazy and selfish. Another problem is parents who drop off and pick up their children from school. A 40-kilogram child burns 56 kilocalories on a 20-minute walk to school. But only 8 kilocalories are burned when riding in a car.
To prevent obesity, parents should stop the child from getting addicted to junk food. According to a public health nutrition study by the government in 2001, the younger the person is, the higher the rate at which they consume animal fat. The ideal energy structure of food intake for Koreans is 66 percent carbohydrates, 15 percent protein and 19 percent fat.
However, the study showed that in children between 7 and 12 years old, fat accounted for 23 percent of their intake, and 22 percent in those between age 13 and 19. In both cases, the figures are higher than the ideal 19 percent suggested by the study.
In fast food pizza, fat accounted for 42 percent. Fat made up 58 percent of hamburgers and 65 percent of fried chicken. The study also suggested that when eating junk food, it is better to drink milk or juice rather than soda drinks. A can of coke has a high sugar concentration.
The doctor adds that there are plenty of good, nutritious foods with low calories, such as tomatoes, which are 90 percent water. They are also full of vitamin C and carotene. Each tomato contains only 40 kilocalories. A hundred grams of seaweed contains only 22 kilocalories, making it a good food for a diet.
Forcing a diet on a child will cause more problems than it will solve. The most effective way to combat childhood obesity is to change bad eating habits. The first step is to make a diary of the food the child consumes. Writing down the type of food, the amount, the place, the time and the emotion at the time helps to find the cause of obesity. The second step is to reduce the exposure to food. Place food only in the kitchen and after eating, immediately tidy up. It is also a good habit not to completely finish what’s on the table. The third step is to provide compensation when the child does the right thing. But remember to praise the action performed rather than the losing of weight.
Actions or words that hurt children’s pride, such as telling them not to eat, or weighing them every day, should be avoided. Such words and actions will make the child obsessed with their diet, and could later be the cause of an eating disorder such as anorexia.
by Ko Jong-kwan