Historically, children have lived fast and played hard. However, the rise in recent decades of a vast array of highly appealing but sedentary activities have led to an alarming epidemic of small rotundities who lethargically trudge through their schooldays, returning in the afternoons to homes populated with televisions, game consoles and any number of computer programs that insidiously sap ever more vigor from young bodies that in other eras would have dashed about energetically in sunlight and fresh air. Particularly in the United States, a cultural shift toward close supervision of children at all times has exacerbated this problem by severely limiting the opportunities for casual physical activity.
In their war against childhood obesity, many parents have resorted to the simple expedient of locking up and rationing the dispensing of sweets and other especially fattening foodstuffs, and some despairing mothers have reluctantly shipped off their children to special “fat camps,” which are staffed by health experts and assistants who carefully monitor obese children as they undergo intense programs of controlled diet and exercise.
Addressing Creeping Obesity
Concerned parents seeking useful solutions for improving the health of their children and preventing abnormal weight gain may be moved to consider putting their children on diets. A diet is technically nothing more than whatever is eaten by a person during the course of a day, a week or a month, but the word has become associated with the practice of limiting calorie intake over a long period of time to cause unwanted fat reserves to be gradually burned up, presumably leaving the dieter with a body that is within normal weight limits. Because dieting is so often accompanied by constant hunger, it is difficult even for a self-disciplined adult to accomplish a desired loss of excess body fat. Trying to get children to avoid the delicious foods that they see being eaten all around them can be a hard task indeed for parents. Compounding the problem is the dreary fact that in many developed countries, children are routinely bombarded with television commercials pushing calorie-rich foodstuffs, frequently in concert with manipulative references to popular children’s films or toys.
Fortunately, except for the most extreme cases, it is unlikely that children need to be subjected to the rigors of calorie-restricted diets.
Growing Bodies Grow
Children, by definition, are immature human beings. Their bodies are rapidly growing. Regardless of whether their adult bodies promise to be delicate or large-framed, their skeletons, muscles, skins and other organs are still developing. It is normal for children to consume great quantities of building blocks such as proteins and fats. Admittedly, the diets of many children, especially in richer countries, have become overly loaded with processed carbohydrates and less-healthy fats. Children can be quite hardy, but even the most robust child will do better with a balanced diet that offers a variety of healthier fats and oils and complex carbohydrates, as well as enough protein of sufficient quality. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits and high-fiber whole grains will be far better than a diet marked by an overabundance of candy and other foods lacking in nutritional value beyond pure calories. Milk and dairy products will provide high-quality protein, as will nuts and leaner meats such as chicken and pork.
Children Are Different from Adults
A significant difference between overweight adults and overweight children is that an adult must address obesity with a concerted effort, but an overweight child typically needs only to adhere to a generally better diet to be healthier. Doing this will allow the natural course of growing up to burn away excess body fat, resulting in a reasonably healthy adult body. It should also be kept in mind that children need constant nutrition for full physical development. They should not skip meals nor partake in risky, imbalanced diet fads that may result in retarded development or even serious health problems.
Naturally, it also helps to be physically active. Children can and should be strongly encouraged to join in school sports and other organized activities that promote fitness. Intelligent attention to healthier eating habits and physical exercise will frequently much better serve the interest of children’s health than the simplistic approach of calorie restriction.
Consult a Health Professional
As with any serious question of health, parents with specific concerns about their children should consult their family physicians for detailed, professional advice. The Body mass index (BMI), indicates the possibility of obesity. If needed, measures may be recommended to increase fitness and improve the overall quality of daily nutrition for an overweight child. A seriously obese child may benefit from being monitored by a dietitian, a specialist in nutrition.
Children who express concerns about their appearance or other physical characteristics may benefit from professional counseling, which may already be offered at public or private schools as part of the services available to their pupils. In any case, parents and teachers should always be alert to signs that a child is afflicted with an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia.