How could you not know if your child is fat? It may sound implausible – isn’t it blindingly obvious? In a recent study of 2,976 families in the UK, only four parents thought their child was very overweight. But medical assessments put the figure at 369. The rest thought their child was healthy and a normal weight.
Before you shake your head at these parents and think this will never apply to you, did you know that a 10-year-old child’s ribs should be clearly visible? Most people would consider a child with sticky-out bones to be underweight, but that’s how healthy kids that age should look. ‘Parents are unaware their children are fat and when they’re told, they are surprised and often angry,’ says consultant paediatrician Mary Rolfe, who advises the government on obesity. The problem is overweight children are more likely to suffer from psychological problems as well as physical health issues.
Weight categories in children aged two to 20 are: very thin, low body mass index (BMI), overweight, very overweight, severely obese, morbidly obese. A BMI that is less than the 5th percentile is considered underweight and above the 95th percentile is considered obese. Visit www.rcpch.ac.uk to see what category your child is in.
There are stories in the media all the time about how the nation is getting fatter and, currently, 25% of boys and 33% of girls between the ages of two and 19 are overweight or obese in the UK. That equates to one in three children being overweight. But a recent study by The King’s College London suggests that figures may be beginning to level off in the under-10s.
It found a steady rise in the proportion of overweight children in England in 1994-2003, but in the past decade it has remained at about 30% for the under-10s.
Obesity rates among 11- to 15-year-olds are still rising, however. Overweight and obesity levels in this age group ranged from 26% in 1996 to 35% in 2003 and have continued to rise – to 37% – in the past decade.
That is a lot of children at risk of serious health problems. Type 2 diabetes, once called adult onset diabetes, because it hit middle-aged overweight people, has had to have a name-change because kids are being diagnosed in their thousands. And it’s not a mild disease; it can cause so many different health problems, from heart disease to blindness to amputation of limbs. Surely you don’t want that for the next generation.
It's too much
Surely a child’s weight is down to the parents, but it has been revealed that many simply don’t know what overweight looks like. A study in Plymouth revealed that 33% of mums and 57% of dads considered their child’s weight to be about right when, in fact, they were obese. One in 10 parents was worried their child was underweight when they were a normal, weight. So why is it people are unaware of this?
‘We have adjusted to the fact that being overweight is the norm so it is hard to identify when a child has a problem,’ says Dr Rolfe. ‘The media often portrays the extreme cases of childhood obesity and most children do not look that obviously overweight. In comparison with the images the media portrays, they look slim. ‘But even lesser degrees of being overweight can lead to obesity problems in adult life.’
And it’s not just parents who are getting it wrong. According to Dr Rolfe, even healthcare professionals underestimate children’s weight. ‘They mis-categorise children as being a healthier weight than they are, unless the child is morbidly obese,’ she says.
'Today we have one of the highest childhood obesity rates in Europe and we need to instil healthy eating habits from a really young age. Establish set mealtimes; lead by example; learn to cook healthily; be aware of portion sizes; persevere - remember, no one is born a fussy eater.'
What are we doing?
Obesity is being tackled by Parliament. In 2005, the National Child Measurement Programme was introduced to monitor the epidemic of childhood obesity. As soon as children start primary school, their height and weight are measured, and again in their final year, when they are around 10 years old. Parents are told how healthy the weight of their child actually is.
Now, the government is committed to tackling childhood obesity and has an ambition to achieve ‘a sustained downward trend in the level of excess weight in children by 2020’ according to Public Health England.
Why is the problem among children so severe? The answer, according to dietitian Juliette Kellow, is obvious. ‘They are eating junk food and not doing enough exercise.’ A study showed the problem starts from an early age. Nine out of 10 toddlers say junk food is their favourite, with chicken nuggets, fishfingers, chocolate and crisps topping their must-eat lists.
If your child has been told she is overweight, don’t panic. You will be given health-related tips on how to make a difference before it’s too late.
‘Information is offered to help parents get their child into the healthy weight range and many families see it as a wake-up call to ensure their family becomes more active and eats more healthily,’ says Dr Rolfe. ‘Once obesity is established, it is hard to reverse. Less serious levels of being overweight are easier to correct.’
And it will benefit both your child and you – being a healthy weight reduces the risk of contracting cancer and heart disease, and you’ll set your child a good example.
‘While the introduction of the Child Measurement Programme has been controversial (parents believe the system doesn’t take into account the build and heritage of children), most parents will appreciate that it offers the opportunity to improve their child’s life,’ says Dr Rolfe.
Schools around the country are now making a greater effort to ensure that children under their care spend time in a healthier environment with healthy food choices and encouraging regular, physical activity.