When Deborah King had to start buying men’s t-shirts labelled XL for her 11 year old daughter Scarlett, she worried not only about the health risks of her being so overweight, but also that she could face bullying. The 45-year old school teacher from Enfield had been an overweight child herself and was keen to protect her daughter from cruel taunts and a full blown confidence crisis. 'I remember signing a letter opting out of her being weighed at school, but when Scarlett was the only one not taking part, she came home so upset I was torn about what to do next’.
As a parent of an overweight child, Deborah King is far from alone. One in five 10-11 year olds in the UK are currently overweight or obese and recent warnings from the Obesity Health Alliance suggest this could lead to a staggering 7.6 million new cases of disease in the next 20 years. More British children than ever are developing type 2 diabetes, usually only seen in adults over 40. Ahead of the government’s long awaited childhood obesity, we ask why this is happening and what you can do if you are a parent or grandparent of an over-weight child?
Why are so many children so fat?
'Food! Too much of it,’ says Dr Tabitha Randell, a pediatric endocrinologist at Nottingham Children’s Hospital and advisor to thediabetes.co.uk forum. 'Even in the middle classes, you can have too much of a good thing. People think smoothies are healthy but they’re packed full of sugar, likewise fruit juice. Plus, children who don’t eat their meals will often be given crisps or sweets later that night or cooked separate meals. In my house the children have always eaten the same as us and if they don’t like it, they will be hungry. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad parent.’ But what if children just won’t eat that broccoli? 'It takes 15 tastes to like something,’ she says. It might not end up their favorite food but they will learn to eat it.’
And while home-cooking is better than take-aways, bad habits can still form, says Deborah. 'We were cooking with lots of oil, having desserts we didn’t really need and eating cereal bars and drinking fruit juices we thought were good for us.’ Scarlett would eat two chocolate croissants for breakfast and when her granddad routinely picked her up from school, would have Coke and a chocolate bar ready followed by dinner of lots of pasta with cheese and oven chips. 'Beige food, mostly,’ remembers Scarlett. 'And always a treat in front of the telly at night.’
One study published in June this year in the journal Scientific Reports found that larger portion sizes were directly linked to overweight children and that feeding kids larger meal sizes at 21 months was associated with their gaining weight between the ages of two and five. In fact, for every additional ten calories kids consumed at meals, their odds of being overweight grew by six per cent. This chimes with a new report by the Infant and Toddler Forum (ITF) that found one in ten parents give pre-school children meals the size of adult portions and a third don’t see anything wrong with children eating a whole bag of crisps, even though this is twice the recommended amount.
While weight is a balance between calories in and out we need to be aware of other factors too, says Anna Groom, a specialist pediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. Increased ownership of phones for example, means more children are not getting the recommended 60 minutes a day of activity with some spending up to 32 hours a week in front of digital devices. 'Plus, parents often tell me they’re worried about the safety of their children playing outside,’ Groom says. We also need to think about our own screen habits too. 'That’s why we encourage whole family activities, group playing in the park, bike-riding, swimming, which can give children the freedom to play but adults peace of mind.’ And a break from their own devices too.
Making the changes
In a climate where there is such worry about eating disorders, striking the right balance when tackling a child’s weight is crucial. Deborah decided to lead by example. 'Mum said 'I don’t want you to become bullied and unhappy like I was at your age,’ Scarlett remembers. This time last year, after a friend became a Slimming World (SW) consultant, Deborah, who was very overweight herself, joined up and two weeks later, her daughter followed and mother and daughter bonded over their new healthy lifestyle. 'Emotionally we supported each other through things like cravings,’ says Scarlett. 'And we started making healthy swaps such as using spray instead of glugs of oil, swapping full fat mince for five per cent and going swimming every Friday nights part of our time together.’ The tiny changes added up and Deborah has dropped seven dress sizes (is now a 14) while Scarlett has gone from a size 16 to a size ten. Altogether they have lost 11 stone in 11 months.
A family affair
For a health kick to last with a child it needs to become a whole family thing, Dr Randell says. When, at five, her daughter’s waist was almost as big as her own, Dr Randell, didn’t say anything to her child at all. 'I got rid of all the unhealthy food in the house, started putting two sandwiches and fruit in her lunchbox instead of crisps and chocolate, walking to school and using the car as little as possible. Today she is 17 and an active, healthy size ten. 'It’s important parents don’t make it about the child, especially if one is overweight and the others aren’t because feeling singled out can do psychological damage and lead to eating disorders, even in boys.’
But that low-carb plan that worked for you won’t necessarily work for your child, says Anna Groom. 'Children need 55 per cent of their energy from carbs,’ she explains. 'Likewise, you can’t just cut out all their snacks because kids will ask for them and choose something unhealthy the first chance they get.’ Groom recommends structured education programs such as MEND, a whole lifestyle program that also looks at the child’s thoughts and feelings around food or the help of a dietitian (both available through GPs).
As well as being happier Scarlett, now 14, has more confidence. She is campaigning for healthier food in schools, more education on what healthy food looks like and less use of food as reward. 'In school, you’d win a competition and get a box of Celebrations.’ The articulate teen doesn’t like the use of the word 'fat’ either. 'When you speak to someone who has struggled with weight, it’s the one word people try to hurt you with,’ says Scarlett. But it’s the emotional effects she loves most. 'I always loved going to dance class and now I’ll put myself out there much more than I used to. Before that a little part of my brain would say, 'You’re going to be teased if you dance like that’. Now, I would never think I can’t do something just because of my size.’