On the flipside, there are children as young as seven or eight who are worried that they are not thin enough, and want to diet. Recent statistics from the UK show that nearly 200 children aged five to nine have been hospitalised for severe anorexia.
As responsible parents what is the answer? How do we find the middle ground for our children, when we can’t seem to find it as adults? South Africa is one of the heaviest countries globally – two out of three South Africans are considered obese, with 58% of our population admitting they get little to no exercise.
A South African National Health and Nutrition survey released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) last month supports these shocking findings and further shows that the incidence of those that are overweight or obese is significantly higher in women than in men, as well as among girls rather than boys. In fact the highest prevalence of obesity among children was in the two to five age group.
There are several potential causes of childhood obesity including inactivity, diet and family dynamics being some key influencing factors. Research shows that family dynamics have a significant impact on eating practices, including the child’s attitude towards food and ability to know when they are full. Children look to parents as role models, says Dr Jorg Spieldenner, Nestlé head of department for public health nutrition. And, more often than not, children develop their eating habits by observing their mothers.
Nutrition expert and creator of the Scoop to Lose programme Melissa Kelly agrees saying, “Mealtime can be about trusting or controlling, providing or neglecting, accepting or rejecting. Eating can be joyful, full of zest and vitality, or it can be fearful, bounded by control and avoidance. Children who are instructed to clean their plates are less sensitive to physiological clues for satiety and eventually lose the ability to know when they are full.”
Equally, a restrictive approach towards food, or forcing certain fruits and vegetables on a child who doesn’t like them, can result in a lower intake of the healthy foods. “These children are also more likely to fixate on the forbidden foods such as sweets, chips and chocolates and will consume more of them when they get the chance,” Kelly says.
The situation is often exacerbated at school. A study conducted by Nestlé at primary schools showed that the majority of children are consuming fizzy, fattening, fun and frivolous food at school.
Fedhealth says that this does not mean that all schools are getting it wrong as the survey was relatively small, but with nearly a quarter of parents not sending their children to school with a packed lunchbox every day, the pressure is on schools to start providing quality, healthy and nutritious food options. And for the majority of mothers sending their children to school every day with a packed lunch, one way to get the balance right is to get children involved in both the purchasing of lunchbox items, and the making of school lunches.
“I would suggest that kids are involved in packing their lunch no matter what the age,” says Amy Goldsmith, registered dietician and owner of Kindred nutrition. Goldsmith believes that by Grade 3, children should be able to handle their own lunches
Kelly adds that it’s also important to set aside time for family meals at the dinner table as often as possible. “Parents need to take responsibility and be in charge of the ‘what, when and where’ of mealtimes. Children need to be allowed the freedom to choose from the options provided by their parents.”