SINGAPORE: Who doesn’t love chubby babies, with those adorable rolls of fat on their arms and thighs? While puppy fat on babies is endearing, those bits of blubber can turn into a health concern if they persist. Carrying extra weight can put your child at risk for a whole host of health problems later in life.
The number of overweight children in Singapore has been on the rise. According to the Ministry of Education, obesity in children was 10 per cent in 2000. In 2013, this number rose to 11 per cent, and then 12 per cent in 2014.
But sometimes, even parents are unable to see that their own children are overweight, according to a study published in the British Journal of General Practice. Said mum of two Mabel Lee: “No one likes to hear that their child is fat. And honestly, if you see the child every day, it’s hard to notice any gradual weight gain.”
DETERMINE IF YOUR CHILD IS OVERWEIGHT
To find out whether your child has weight problems, look at the charts in his health booklet, said Kinder Clinic paediatrician Dr Vera Oh.
“Refer to your child’s health booklet for the percentile charts and the weight for height charts. There are also BMI charts available online that will give you an idea of what percentile your child is on,” she added.
The higher the percentile number, the bigger your child is compared to other children his age. So, if your 5-year-old is in the 80th percentile for weight, it simply means that 80 per cent of 5-year-old boys weigh the same as, or less than your child, and 20 per cent weigh more.
Do note that while percentile charts don’t necessarily point to a problem, it gives you an idea as to how heavy your child is compared to his peers. If you see a sharp rise in your offspring’s position on the chart, check with a doctor if you need to improve his eating habits and activity levels.
Said Geraldine Yeo, who has a 5-year-old son: “I never saw my son as overweight, because seeing him every day, you don’t really see the increase. But the school noted that he had climbed from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile in a short time, so there were red flags.”
While genes do influence your child’s weight, it is only one part of the equation. Junior can still maintain a healthy weight with the right diet and exercise.
So, why worry if your child is overweight? For starters, they are more likely to develop serious illnesses in adulthood. Dr Oh said: “Being overweight puts your child at a higher risk of high blood pressure and diabetes.”
Diabetes rates in Singapore have risen, from 8.6 per cent of the population in 1992, to 11.3 per cent in 2010. Dr Oh noted: “If there’s a family history of diabetes, then the risk is higher. In fact, just being Asian, there’s a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes.”
Other weight-related health conditions include heart disease, asthma and even joint pain in early adulthood. This is because in heavy people, their hearts and bodies have to work harder in order to carry the weight, especially when they take part in physical activities.
Being overweight as a child can also take an emotional toll. Overweight children are often shy about how they look, as other kids may tease and exclude them from certain activities. This can lead to low self-esteem and negative body images.
So, why are there more overweight children? It’s a matter of “intake versus output”, Dr Oh said. When your child’s daily intake of food far exceeds his output of energy, the excess is stored as fat in his body. “You need to get the child to exercise, instead of spending time on the computer, iPad and TV,” she added.
Here are steps parents can take to combat weight issues:
Besides the amount of food your child eats, you also need to look at what he scarfs down. Our population’s main issue is Type 2 diabetes, Dr Oh pointed out. “In Asia, we are very high on carbs, like white rice. There’s a need to cut back on refined sugars and carbohydrates.”
Serve a wide variety of proteins, fruits and vegetables. Limit dining out, and if you do eat out, try to avoid fast and fatty food. Schedule regular mealtimes, so your child can tell when the next meal is, and will be more likely to eat at those times. Snacks are fine, but limit the amount of candy, cookies and processed foods he gets. Offer fruit, yoghurt or cheese instead.
DON’T CRASH DIET
Refrain from putting your child on a crash diet just because he is heavy. “The child does not necessarily have to lose weight. Sometimes, he just needs to slow the weight gain or maintain the weight, till he grows into his ideal weight,” Dr Oh explained.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
If your child sees you enjoying your veggies and scheduling time to work out or enjoy the outdoors, he’ll be inspired to do the same. Talk to your child about the broccoli dish you are whipping up, or ask him to give you a hand in preparing it. Having (healthy) family meals together also lets him enjoy nutritious options in a convivial setting.
REDUCE SCREEN TIME
If kids are engaged in something they are interested in, they are less likely to ask for TV or iPad time. So, take them out to parks, beaches and other great outdoor spots. You may also have to limit your own viewing habits to set the right example. By the way, cut the habit of snacking in front of the TV. To limit the intake of junk food, make it a rule that all food must be consumed at the dining table.
Kids have plenty of opportunities to engage in various sporting activities. Check out ActiveSG’s range of kids programmes or sign up for family walks and runs. Take a walk around the neighbourhood, play a game of Frisbee at the park, pick up a sport such as tennis or make it an evening routine to spend some time at the playground. Even getting the little ones to help out with chores at home will get them moving.
A version of this story first appeared in Smart Parents.