Q: My six-year-old daughter is overweight (actually, her paediatrician described her as being obese). I am not sure how to handle things. I also used to be a chubby child but ‘outgrew’ it in my teens. My daughter is a really picky eater and will only eat food made in a particular way—she doesn’t like vegetables very much but really enjoys fruits. On average, she eats five meals a day (breakfast, tea break snacks, lunch, after-school snacks and supper). The tea break snacks tend to be biscuits/cookies, cake and crisps (most of the children in her school carry these) and her after-school snacks consists of either bread or mandazi and a fruit. Like children her age, she loves to play but I haven’t enrolled her in any sport yet as I want her to decide on what tickles her fancy. Should I ‘slim’ my daughter or should I just let nature take its course and wait and see if she loses the weight with time? She is 48 kilogrammes. Her brother is four years old and has normal weight.
according to the doctor.
Traditionally, chubby children were considered ‘healthier’ than those who were slender— it has been proven that this is not necessarily true.
Whilst it is unhealthy for your child to be underweight, the opposite is no better. Although childhood obesity doesn’t always lead to obesity in adulthood, it has been found that the majority of obese children do not ‘outgrow’ their baby fat. They become overweight adults and have to deal with the health challenges that come with it.
Aim for long term change
Don’t ‘slim’ her down. Instead, implement healthy eating and lifestyle habits that will result in her becoming a healthier child and adult.
You need to think about this in the long term. Don’t target quick fixes with rapid weight loss— she will likely regain the kilos again once you go back to your regular routine.
Give her and your entire family at least a year to try and wean off bad feeding and lifestyle habits and adopt healthier ones.
Healthy family meals
Make a conscious effort to ensure that the entire family eats healthily. Even though your daughter is the only overweight person in the household, it is the family eating and lifestyle habits that have led to her weight gain.
Trade refined grains, like white bread and white rice, for whole grains, such as whole wheat bread and brown rice. Opt for grilling and baking of meals where possible (especially meats) as opposed to frying. Incorporate lots of fruits and vegetables as part of your family meals. Check the sugar content in your child’s cereal— they can contain alarmingly high quantities of sugar. Look for low sugar, high fibre options.
Water is best
Sweetened drinks are a common source of ‘empty’ calories (unnecessary calories that mainly contribute to unwanted weight gain). In addition, they contribute to tooth decay. Make it a habit to offer your children water when they are thirsty.
I noticed that your child’s snacks comprise of a lot of processed fried and sugary starchy foods. Phase those out and introduce healthier options to her.
Offer fresh vegetables and fruit instead of processed snacks.
Small pre-packed break sized low fat yoghurt packs also make good snacks. It may be difficult to stop sugary treat intake abruptly and having a ‘no sweets rule’ often leads to for cravings and overindulging when given the chance.
Allow her an occasional sweet treat. Keep a bowl of fresh fruit in the kitchen and encourage your children to snack on fruits.
Most parents tend to give children oversized portions then force the child to finish it. This is not the right approach.
Since it can be tricky to determine what constitutes an appropriate portion for your child, start with small servings and let the child ask for more if they are not satisfied. Ensure that first serving is well balanced and contains all the right food groups.
She doesn’t like what it tastes like!
Some children struggle with vegetables— especially if they have developed a taste for deep fried, fatty or rich sweet foods.
In most cases, it takes about 10 to 15 intakes of a particular vegetable for a child to get used to how it tastes.
You, therefore, need to be patient. The child may not grow to love all vegetables but with time, they will come to accept them as part of their meal plan.
Involve the child in meal preparation
Involve the child in planning and making the family meal— even go shopping with the child. Since she is six years old, you can even use this as an opportunity to teach her the nutritional benefits of the different foods. For example, if she picks carrots, you can tell her something like ‘carrots are important for good vision’.
If she picks potatoes, you let her know that they give her ‘energy to play’ and so on. This will give the child a sense of excitement and pride in their food choices. Make sure that the meals are always balanced.
Food is not a reward
Try not to punish, reward or cheer your child up with food. If you do so, it is a sure way of ensuring that the child will develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
If they perform a task well, and you feel they need to be rewarded, offer to take them out for an activity like swimming or allow them an hour extra to play as opposed to buying them chocolate.
In addition, do not promise children sweet treats like ice cream as a reward for eating their vegetables during dinner. It sends a message that vegetables are less valuable than foods like ice cream (or that eating vegetables is some sort of chore).
Limit TV time
Watching too much television is closely linked with becoming overweight (both in children and adults). Apart from the fact that the child is inactive when they are watching TV, they are also more likely to see food advertisements that encourage them to eat (whether or not they are hungry).
Limit screen time (TV, video games, Internet) to a maximum of two hours a day. In addition, encourage your child to go out and play for at least an hour a day (that is the bare minimum— ideally, they should be up and about all day, if possible).
Lead by example
Children love to imitate what their parents do. If they see you being active, limiting your TV time, happily eating your fruits and vegetables, they are likely to want to do the same.
Take time to play with your children and go for walks, runs and other outdoor activities — it is great for family bonding.