Many doctors predict that this may be the first generation where we will see children dying before their parents. This is something that is hard to imagine but this is due to an error in eating beliefs and practices. Children today are growing up in a world that is changing very fast. Parents are busy: often too busy with work stress and telephone calls to really take the time to be with their children and listen so that their children feel important and valued. Children's lives too have become over pressured by long hours of school, with hours of homework and too many examinations. It is very rare in England, even in the countryside, to see many children out playing in the woods and fields and getting exercise as we did when I was young. This is mainly due to the world being perceived as a much more dangerous place for children.
In England children as young as six months are often left in the care of nurseries for long hours by their professional parents; sometimes for as long as 10 hours a day. Is this progress?
It is a well-studied fact that happy children who have had some degree of independence to play and explore go on to be far more successful than those who have been hot-housed in a classroom and closeted in their bedroom with their electronic games. There are many studies and plenty of expert opinions around but parents do need to think for themselves; and decide what is best for their own child to thrive and be healthy. Childhood is such a very short but important time and children should be encouraged to enjoy it.
The main causes of childhood obesity are poor eating habits; lack of physical activity; and insufficient sporting activity. If we feel that it is not safe for children to play outside then they need to be offered more physical activity at school to compensate. Sport should be part of the curriculum at schools not once or twice a week but every day. And parents should lobby for this.
Parents too should lead by example; children do not always do as we say but often copy what we do. If we eat junk food and spend our lives in front of screens they will grow up believing that is how they should live their lives. Children should always feel they come first, not your career, and I always make it a point never to interrupt a conversation with my child to answer my phone. Children need at least one hour of physical activity per day to be healthy whereas adults need only thirty minutes.
Advertising has been used to make hamburgers and pizza appear as cool modern food for teenagers to be eating. American soaps show stars sitting on couches eating ice cream and chips and dips. Cans of fizzy drink are also seen as a cool drink although many contain caffeine and no nutrients at all. Many teens think it is normal to drink fizzy drinks and chips with each meal. And if these become regular habits, it is not easy to change them, as eating and caffeine laden fizzy drinks can be addictive and difficult to give up. Suddenly stopping drinking cola in the New Year can lead to a feeling of tiredness and headaches as these are caffeine withdrawal symptoms. So it is best to cut down slowly to one per day and then gradually to view those drinks as a weekly treat, not as something to be consumed all the time. If you want to help your child give up fizzy drinks and sodas then stop buying them: you are the boss.
Cola drinks may be a particularly poor choice, as they contain phosphoric acid which can have particularly bad effect on bone health. Some studies have linked soft drinks with an increased risk of bone fracture and a reduction in bone mineral density in children. Drinking soft drinks regularly, particularly in adolescent girls, has been linked to osteoporosis in later life. There are so many habits of modern eating that are considered normal in the world that our children have grown up in that are not healthy. It is for grandparents and parents to educate their children on how healthy eating practices from the past compare with the factory processed food we now eat.
Portion sizes are also key to health
Talk to your child about what is a normal portion size as some children do not know. It is a difficult fact to get over to children as they have grown up with larger portions: the portions now being offered in many restaurants are abnormal. This generation has grown up with the idea that a super-sized meal is good value for money. A mother, as the provider of food for the family, must think about how much food goes on to the table. If as a mother you put loads of food on the dinner table then your children will think they have the right to eat too much.
Gradual changes are key
It is always important to make changes gradually over time and to be patient. If it has taken your child time to get into habits it will equally take time to get into new healthy eating habits.
The average restaurant meal is now four times larger than it was in the 1950s. The average adult is now 26 pounds heavier than in the 1950s.
Eating a healthy diet and being physically active will help your child:
To reach and maintain a healthy weight
To avoid heart disease, Type II diabetes and certain cancers in later life
To improve mood and concentration
To perform better in school