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How To: Prevent Childhood Obesity

By Contributed content 21 May 2018
With the rate of childhood obesity on the rise, and with that the risk of many chronic diseases later in life, it's more important than ever to help children develop healthy habits when it comes to their lifestyle choices. We get some helpful tips from registered dietician Sally Poon, who works to educate families about healthy eating and lifestyle.

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According to the latest figures from the Student Health Service of the Department of Health (DH), the rate of childhood obesity in Hong Kong has been maintaining the upward trend in the last decade and shows no signs of stopping. Nowadays, researchers have confirmed that overweight children are more likely to stay obese in their adulthood. As evidence is clear that adult obesity is associated with many chronic diseases like heart diseases, diabetes, stroke, and cancers, taking measures to control the issue early in life has become imperative. The most effective interventions for childhood obesity involve three elements: nutrition education, behaviour changes, and physical activity. These elements are family-based and tailored according to the child's age and stage of development. Here are some tips and guidelines on how to introduce them into your home.

Nutrition Education

Some of the main contributing factors to childhood obesity are: skipping breakfast or having a low nutrition quality breakfast, dining out more regularly, eating fast food and junk food, drinking sugary-beverages, a high intake of meats but low intake of vegetables and whole fruits, and having large portion sizes. Local foods are quite high in fat content and dense in calories, and local dining patterns have been greatly influenced by western countries, where fast food and junk food is popular. Here are some diet recommendations:
  • Base meals on starchy food, choosing wholegrain where possible
  • Eat plenty of fibre-rich food such as oats, beans, peas, lentils, grains, fruit and vegetables, wholegrain bread, and brown rice and pasta
  • Eat as little as possible of fried food, drink and confectionery high in added sugars, and other food and drink high in fat and sugar, such as some take-away and fast foods
  • Children should eat three servings of vegetables or more every day; one serving of vegetables means one bowl of uncooked vegetables or half a bowl of cooked vegetables
  • Eat the whole fruit instead of drinking juice. Fruit juice contains less dietary fibre when compared with the whole fruits. Moreover, too much fruit juice will give you excess sugar or energy (calories) intake because of the high fructose (fruit sugar) content
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Recommendation for Fruit Intake:

  • 1 to 3 years old: 1/2 – 1 serving
  • 3 to 6 years old: 1 serving
  • 6 to 12 years old: 1-2 servings
  • 12 to 18 years old: 2 servings

What is ‘One Serving of Fruit’?

  • 2 pieces of small-sized fruit (e.g. plums and kiwifruits)
  • 1 piece of medium-sized fruit (e.g. oranges, apples, and mandarin oranges)
  • 1/2 piece of large-sized fruit (e.g. bananas, grapefruits, and star fruits)
  • 1/2 bowl of mini-sized or diced fruit (e.g. diced watermelon, diced honeydew melon, cherries, strawberries, and grapes)
  • 1/4 bowl of dried fruits with no added sugar or salt (e.g. raisins and dried prunes)
  • 3/4 cup of fruit juice with no added sugar (e.g. orange juice and apple juice)
  • Remark: 1 bowl = 250 to 300 ml; 1 cup = 240 ml
Source: Department of Health (DH) [/su_note]

Behaviour Changes

There is no need to worry too much if your child shows a trend in obesity, and there is certainly no need to help them lose weight by following popular fad diets or using slimming methods. Since children will grow and develop gradually, just getting them to quit bad dietary habits and do more exercise will be enough to get their weight back on track, step by step. Here are some pointers:
  • Parents and carers should eat with children - with all family members eating the same food
  • Children and young adults should eat regular meals, including breakfast, in a pleasant, sociable environment without distractions (such as watching television)
  • Encourage children to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Breakfast should not be neglected as it is one of the main meals and can boost schoolchildren's power to think and learn; whereas skipping breakfast may cause them to eat too much at recess or lunch. It should be eaten at scheduled times and feature grains and cereals (e.g. bread, congee, or oatmeal)
  • Avoid sweeteners, and encourage children to gradually change their current eating habits and accept food that tastes more plain or less sweet. Low-calorie sugar substitutes (also know as sweeteners) can be far sweeter than generic 'sugar' and can lead children to become more addicted to sweetness, which in turn makes them take in excess sugar from other food. Inadequate sleep hours are also related to a rise in obesity, therefore make sure your child has a set bedtime at a reasonable hour for their age

Physical Activity

With such a heavy focus on academic achievement, it's common for children in Hong Kong to take extra private tutorial classes after school, some of which are sedentary, and this reduces the time and opportunity they have for physical activities. Watching television, playing computer games, and using electronic devices is also more common now, meaning physical activities have been reduced compared to the old days. This needs to change:
  • Accumulate at least 60 minutes of regular, moderate to vigorous intensity activity each day that is developmentally appropriate
  • Encourage active play such as dancing and skipping, and try to be more active as a family, such as walking to school and the shops, or going to the park or swimming
  • Gradually reduce sedentary activities to less than two hours per day, such as watching television or playing video games
  • Encourage children to participate in sport or other active recreation, and make the most of opportunities for exercise at school
[su_note note_color="#dcdadb" text_color="#1d010a"]Check out Sally's published recipe book for children, Kids Recipes by Dietitians, which aims to promote healthy cooking and eating habits, and her nutrition song called Smart Eater. [/su_note]
Read more! Explore the rest of our How To section.

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