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Childhood Obesity and Malnutrition

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Jun 3, 2015

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When we think of malnutrition, the typical image that comes to mind is of someone who is emaciated with a bloated stomach. We think that because we don’t struggle to get food, we cannot be malnourished. We are wrong.

This “typical” image is of a person who is undernourished, which falls on one end of the malnutrition spectrum; obesity falls at the other. Childhood obesity is a sign of malnutrition as surely as emaciation, and is a growing problem for children in wealthy, urban areas.

What is childhood obesity?

In simple terms, a person is obese if they have an excess amount of body fat. Children are considered obese if their body weight is well above the normal weight for children of their age and height. Obesity in children is a serious medical condition that increases the risk for several health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Consult your doctor if you think your child may be obese. She may run some blood tests to check your child’s cholesterol, blood sugar, or hormone levels, which may be affected by obesity.

How does diet affect childhood obesity?

Obesity is all about diet. While genetic and hormonal factors can play a role, strictly speaking, obesity is caused by eating too much (and too unhealthily) and moving too little.

Obesity can be prevented in children by inculcating healthy eating habits in them from the time they are little. If you prepare healthy food for kids from a young age, you will have less difficulty getting him or her to eat healthily and avoiding obesity when older.

How to correct the course?

But what do you do if you have a child who’s addicted to burgers and colas? Or a child already struggling with obesity? You can take these three steps to help your child enjoy healthy food for kids:

Get creative with food.

It might be difficult, but it is certainly not impossible to make an obese child’s diet healthier. I don’t advise cutting down on the child’s food intake; instead, try swapping unhealthy ingredients with healthier ones. For example:

  • Instead of bringing home chocolate cake – which contains refined flour (maida), chocolate, fat, and sugar – bring (or bake) carrot cake, pumpkin cake, or walnut and date cake, substituting some of the maida with whole wheat or multigrain flour. These flours are healthier than maida, and the natural sweetness of the fruit or vegetable base means the cake calls for less refined sugar. The butter content of both cakes is likely the same, but swapping in a fruit or veggie-based dessert is a good start.
  • Instead of a thick, greasy pizza, make a thin-crust pizza using either whole-wheat pizza bread or a chapati. Make a fresh tomato sauce by cooking tomatoes at home, substitute some of the processed cheese with healthier paneer, and top it with an assortment of vegetables. You can change the vegetables frequently so that your child doesn’t get bored of the same pizza.
  • Instead of an all-meat, greasy burger, mix vegetables or pulses into the patty and grill rather than fry it. Use a whole-wheat bun and garnish it with fresh tomatoes, onions, or lettuce.
  • Instead of a grilled processed cheese sandwich on white bread, make the sandwich with multi-grain or whole-wheat bread and paneer, rather than processed cheese. Mix the paneer with grated vegetables, so your child can’t pick them out while eating.
  • Instead of eating lots of coconut chutney, which is high in fats, with South Indian snacks, make sure your child eats more sambhar or rasam.
  • Instead of giving your child colas and sugary juices, make nimbu paani, buttermilk, or get coconut water.

Increase physical activity.

An obese child needs to increase his or her physical activity to achieve a healthy weight. This can be difficult in cities where both fresh air and space is in short supply. Here are some suggestions on how to get your child moving:

Enroll your child in sporting activities that he or she loves to play. Sign her up for a cricket or football training camp. If team sports aren’t her thing, try individual sports like badminton, tennis, squash, swimming, gymnastics, or even dancing. Whatever your child chooses, go along to her practices and competitions to support her. By taking an active interest in your child’s training you will encourage and help her stay invested in continuing physical activity.

Encourage your child to play with other kids in the building. Rally the other parents and designate play time for at least an hour a day. If you can find only one set of parents who are willing to let their child swap studying for play time, send the two kids down to play with skipping ropes or run races.

Get out of your home on the weekends. Family time can still be active time when you visit a park and play games outside. You can even go to a museum or zoo where you’ll have to walk about. As an added bonus, you and your child will get a cultural experience as well.

Don’t banish treats entirely.

Your child is only human and he is going to want unhealthy snacks and drinks. It’s okay to let him have the occasional treat, so long as he knows that he can’t have his beloved samosas, French fries, or sugary drinks every day. You can ease up on the rules for special occasions, like birthday parties, if he’s otherwise eating healthy food on a regular basis.

The key to getting your child to eat healthily is to make him enjoy his food; if he’s deprived of yummy snacks every time his friends are indulging, he’ll only become resentful. But remember, eating well is all about moderation—so the number of days he’s allowed the special treats can’t outnumber the days he’s eating healthy food.

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Written By Ratnaraje Krishna Thar

Ratnaraje Krishna Thar, PhD, MSc. MPhil Foods Nutrition and Dietetics, is a nutritionist with a strong academic and research background, and twenty five years of experience in nutrition. She has presented research papers at national and international level, and has been active in community nutrition projects in Mumbai as well as rural and tribal areas of Maharashtra. She currently serves as faculty at Sophia Women’s Research Centre, a Nutritionist at Natural Health Centre for Better Health in Mumbai, a consultant with the Bay View Advisory Services Team and Shrimati Malati Dahanukar Trust, and handles clinical cases. She is currently working on developing a Nutrition app that will provide easy access to basic nutrition information.

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