Do you remember your school days when the fat kids in class were made fun of? Usually there were one or two overweight kids in the class that were ridiculed with names like motu, or hathi. If you know of this scenario, chances are that you are at least 25 years old. These days if you go to any private school in Pune you will notice that there are not just one or two, but loads of overweight children — in some cases they surpass the thin kids.

The increase in obesity has happened in a relatively short period of time and the statistics are alarming. September is Child Obesity Month — an issue that urgently needs to be addressed collectively by parents, schools and health officials.

In urban India 20% of children and adolescents are classified as unhealthily overweight according to a study conducted by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Having a body mass index(BMI) of over 25 is considered overweight and a BMI over 30 is obese. How this change happened is obvious — the increased consumption of junk foods and decrease in energy expenditure or exercise equals more kilos on the body.

Junk food is not a new phenomena. Our grandparents had chewda, namkeen, ladoos and other sweets as junk foods. These foods however were usually eaten on special occasions, for example the Puneri Diwali faral. Now diet consists of both Indian junk foods as well as western cakes, cookies and chips on a regular basis. Kids also used to walk or bike to school and played outdoors as much as possible and be in front of the television. To meet friends you had to go out and meet them, not connect with them through Facebook or Skype. The combination of working moms with less time and the competitive nature of our education system has created stressed out families, just compounding the problem.

Aesthetics aside, extra weight on children has other dire health implications. A study conducted by AIIMS on overweight and obese children in Delhi showed that 10% had abnormal glucose levels and 40% had abnormal cholesterol levels. Of the same children 43% did not eat fruits and vegetables everyday, 37% ate sweets and desserts on a daily basis, 62% did not have fixed timing for meals or snacks. Studies show that overweight children have ten times the chance of being overweight adults — adults with higher risk of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. More frightening studies show that being overweight in childhood increases your chances of heart disease as early as 25 years of age.

Fixing this problem is complex. On a public level there are two things that are feasible. First town planning — there have been provisions for open spaces that are reserved for recreational parks for children to run around and play. Secondly, enforcements on transfat bans and truthful food labeling are necessary. As a community we need to emphasize the importance of a healthy diet and place less importance on food being the center of all events.

Schools to some degrees are trying to educate parents and students on health and nutrition. For example, Symbiosis Primary and Secondary Schools give yearly health check up for their students. BMI is monitored and doctors give advice to parents about ideal weight. Vikhe Patil organizes lectures on nutrition for the parents and students. St. Marys limits junk food in students’ tiffins to Friday — one day a week.

Parents know how difficult it is to get kids off the screens — both TV and the computer. If you are constantly negotiating with your children about screen time, then you are on the right track. Setting limits on screen time and insisting on daily exercise is the only way to keep your kids healthy. Here are a few action points that can be taken by parents now:

1. Emphasize fitness and not weight. Unless your children are very obese and under the care of a nutrionist/doctor for their weight problem then do not weigh your children on a regular basis.

2. Initially keep small fitness goals such as running 1000 metres or doing 20 push-ups. Use positive reinforcements — never berate or make fun of your child for his/her weight. After achieving small goals then kids feel better about themselves and are most likely to make healthier food choices.

3. Marks are important, no doubt, but health of children should be the primary concern for parents. Focus on other extra-curricular activities and insist on a sports based activity every single day. Even during the ever-so important 10th and 12th standard years of study, at least 45 minutes of exercise is necessary. Physical activity relieves stress and can rejuvenate a tired brain.

4. Extra classes are often necessary in our school system but ensure that your child is getting proper nutrition as they hop from one class to another. Taking something from home is much better than eating vada-pavfrom a tapri.

5. Limit dessert and soft drinks to once a week. Limitations make children understand that these items are treats. Sugar has addictive properties and if they are used to having sodas and chocolates everyday then their body will them crave daily. If your children are secretly consuming them, don’t fight. In most cases the kids will feel guilty for lying to their mom and dad and will reduce the banned goods themselves.(Emphasis on “most cases.”)

6. Pack healthy tiffins. You pack fruit and nuts for snacks in your child’s tiffin but their friends are bringing namkeen and cream rolls — this is a constant battle that make parents feel their children are getting unhealthy foods as they are sharing other kids unhealthy tiffins — so what’s the point of sending expensive dry fruits? Difficult dilemma, but keep at it. You can be flexible. The middle ground is healthy Indian snacks(preferably made at home or bought from a known source) — chaklis, certain laddos such as besan, and peanut chikki have some good nutritional properties. Store bought cakes and pasties, on the other hand, are filled with transfats and preservatives.

7. Kids many times turn food for comfort when they are feeling low — instead they should turn to their parents, friends and relatives. Keep a good line of communication. Boosting your child’s self esteem makes a confident and happy child.

8. Finally set a good example. What is the message kids will get if they see their parents eating chaat and gulab jamun regularly and not exercising!

It’s not easy — getting your child to eat right when there are so many temptations is easier said than done. Take small steps and don’t get frustrated. Change does not happen immediately. Keep them motivated to stay healthy with fun exercise and healthy treats.

Published in Pune Mirror, September 30, 2012

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