When most of us went to school, overweight children were unusual. Often the “fat boy” was subject to teasing and bullying as the condition was so rare. This is rapidly changing. Almost one in three children in England is overweight or obese, with the EU average being 21 per cent.
At the same time, physicians are learning more about the long term health effects of childhood obesity, and recent data from NHS Digital shows that shockingly, for the first time in history, children in England are becoming afflicted with type 2 diabetes. This disease used to be the “privilege” of the elderly and vulnerable, as it signals a rundown blood sugar regulation system.
Chris Askew, chief executive at Diabetes UK, called the more than 1,500 children in England recently affected by type 2 diabetes “a worrying wake-up call”.
Children who are overweight feel more depressed, and struggle more in school. Childhood obesity is a strong predictor for adult obesity, which not only causes human suffering, a shorter lifespan, and higher cancer risks but also puts a heavy burden on healthcare systems and is costly to society.
There is much debate about what the Government can do, and about the wider implications of the fat epidemic. Not all is understood about the genetics of galloping numbers. Data from Health Survey for England 2018 shows how an overweight mother will link to a 40 per cent risk of her child also being overweight.
So genetics do play a role – some 400 genes have so far been identified as influencing weight, although just a handful seem to be major players. But becoming overweight as a child is the result of both genes and lifestyle. How we eat and live shape us, and great habits begin at home.
Here are some powerful steps to reduce the risk of your child becoming obese and setting the stage for a life of good healthy habits.
1. Happy gut, happy child
Hippocrates said “all disease begins in the gut”, and we are slowly learning how right he was. Research shows that obese children have a different microbiome than normal-weight children, with fewer strains of beneficial bacteria in their guts. Veggies, fruits and berries are the best way to keep a healthy microbiome, as healthy bacteria feed off the fibres. As the fibre gets digested, the bacteria will produce something of great interest to science right now – so-called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These small molecules have strong health effects, many of them are concerned with regulating weight and fat burning.
What if your child doesn’t like vegetables? Just before supper is a great time to serve a veggies and dip platter. Everyone is hungry, and kids will engage with a plate of crudités (carrot, cauliflower, radishes, cucumber, celery) stacked around a bowl of healthy tasty dip. Hummus, guacamole or natural yoghurt with garlic and olive oil, tzatziki style, are all great choices. Sneak veggies into soups, stews and your best Bolognese.
Cut down on sugar – the lining of the gut seems to be key in keeping down inflammation, which increases the risk of obesity. This lining is destroyed by the white stuff. The fewer sweets and fizzy drinks the better; replace them with cut-up fruits and nuts. Support breastfeeding. A WHO study across 16 countries in Europe found that breastfeeding can cut the chances of a child becoming obese by up to 25 per cent.
2. Start with breakfast and add more protein and good fats
Cereal, toast, juices and jam for breakfast? They’re all full of rapid carbohydrates, which will set off the child’s insulin levels, creating strong sugar cravings later in the day. Adding more protein for breakfast stabilises the child’s blood sugar during the day, reducing cravings for sweet things in the afternoon. Add an egg, some full fat natural yoghurt or bacon for longer satiety and more stable blood sugar. Or make your own granola, denser in nuts and good fats (see the recipe below).
3. Fill up with good bacteria
Strengthen the child’s gut with natural full-fat yoghurt. Sneak crumbled blue cheese onto salads. Eat more pickled and fermented foods. Kombucha, the Korean fermented drink, is a tasty alternative to a fizzy drink. Kimchi, a Korean spicy fermented cabbage, or sauerkraut might be too hardcore on their own, but a little bit sneaked into a salad can go unnoticed by the child.
4. Eat proper meals
Granny was right. Sitting down together in front of a home-cooked meal is a powerful habit. But modern life is stressful, and evenings are full of chores and homework. Try to make cooking a happy activity in the kitchen, at least a few times a week. Plan meals with children ahead, put on some music, and divide chores in the kitchen so the children get a stake in the meal too. Make a ritual of eating together, not only because home-cooked foods almost always have better nutritional content than snacks and ready-made foods. Also sitting down together will induce oxytocin, the calming, bonding, digestive-inducing hormone, which also reduces appetite and helps tell your child when he or she is full.
5. Eat cake with other things
It is better from a nutritional point of view to serve chocolate cake or ice cream after a satisfying meal of diverse vegetables, spuds, proteins and good fats than having that same slice of cake or ice-cream on its own. The full meal, eaten over a longer period of time, will provide better digestion, a higher nutritional uptake and a lower GI value and slower insulin release than the quick sugar burst of the single snack.
6. Lead from the front
Children listen poorly; they are made to watch and imitate. If you feel unhappy about your own health habits, look after yourself, and gather the support you need, whether it’s from your partner, a PT or inspiring friends, therapy or online courses, there are so many tools to help us tweak our own habits into a life we are happy with. It’s like emergency measures on the aeroplane – only by fitting the oxygen mask on ourselves first can we then help those around us.
7. Use new technology
As parents, we do not have to do all the work. Introduce your kids to innovative apps that support them in teaching themselves. Finnish tech company Carrot Kitchen has a fun new app, supporting children and young teenagers who are beginners in the kitchen. With inspiring videos, voice instructions and recipes, it shows the joy and freedom of making your own foods.
Lifesum is a mind-opening app, which can support young teenagers to look into what they actually eat, showing the nutrient content of foods. They will quickly learn how easy it is to fill up your plate with fats and carbs, but that vital proteins or minerals like iron require a more thoughtful approach to eating.
8. Keep on the move
An ancient practice in Tahiti was called ‘ha-apon’ – to fatten a young girl by putting her in a small special house where she could not move around. Children today live more sedentary lives than ever, restricting their movements in a similar pattern to ha-apon, with similar results.
Perhaps we should redefine our thinking about PE as the single most important subject in school. Not only does it create the basis of learning, by remodelling the brain and priming it for new information, but also by balancing hunger hormones. A child who exercises in the morning will get into a less hungry, more alert state of mind, which will bring better eating habits during the school day.
Exercise will also lower systemic inflammation, as moving growing muscles ‘speak’ to the immune system, which will affect the brain chemistry. This slight change will help them have their best days emotionally and also help avoid comfort eating.
Move around with your children – walk when possible, bike, do weekend chores and excursions together. The after supper short dog-walk? The weekend trip to the local swimming pool? The yearly summer hike? The outdoor trampoline is a natural magnet for children, making movement fun and easy, and can fit into very small gardens or communal spaces.
9. Consumer power
Ask your local grocery store to be more child-health friendly. Which foods are presented at the level of the eyes of children? Ask your supermarket to stop selling easy junk food just by the till, and promote good snacking instead. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are great tools to discuss which stores are the most child friendly. Find out the supermarket’s tag, and get them into the discussion by asking them questions. Their PR departments, who run their social media accounts, are getting very mindful of these issues, and they want to be seen as being on the side of healthy families and children.
10. Play the long game
Eating patterns and lifestyle habits are formed over a long time. Chinese children do not binge on crisps; emptying the Pringle can is a culturally learned habit, done over and over again. So use your patience to unlearn old habits. Some say it will take a child seven to eight times to get used to a new type of food. Change habits step by step and celebrate small victories like a better breakfast or a great outdoorsy weekend.
Making this granola smells like baking fresh cinnamon buns in the kitchen, and feels like coming home to your comforting granny. It has a great nutritional profile with good fats, protein and anti-inflammatory spices, and is low GI. This works well on natural yoghurt, in full-fat milk, with almond milk or used as crumble on baked apples.