Childhood obesity carries health risks in both the long and short term. The alarming rise in the numbers of obese children has far reaching effects. One of the most significant risks associated with childhood obesity is that it often continues in adulthood (Panzkova et al 2000). The following chapter will discuss these risks, both physical and psychological and also examine how parents can take an active part in helping to combat the problem. It will then go on to highlight the response from the government regarding the proposals set out in the Children’s Mini Manifesto for Health to address this problem.
There are many serious health risks associated with obesity in adulthood, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and many more (Illingworth 1979). Adults who were obese as children have poorer social, educational, and economic prospects. However obese children may not just be storing up problems for their later life, these children often face health and social problems while they are still quite young. Diabetes type 2, which until recently has mainly been associated with adults, is now affecting obese children. These children are placed in a position where they are at risk of developing eye, heart and kidney disease.
Many obese children suffer from orthopaedic problems because although bones and cartilage have the ability to stretch slightly, they cannot cope with the excess weight and conditions such as bow legs and abnormalities in bone growth often occur. The obese child may also be at increased risk of developing Asthma, which itself in certain cases can be a killer. Sleep Apnoea occurs when a person stops breathing while asleep. The period of breathlessness can last for ten seconds or more and prevents the child from getting a good night’s sleep. This has a knock on effect for the child when because of excessive tiredness their ability to function and concentrate during the daytime causes them problems. Although not yet proven it is estimated that Sleep Apnoea affects about seven per cent of obese children (British Nutritional Foundation 1999).
When obesity occurs at such a young age it is not just the body that suffers. Children and teenagers become particularly susceptible to emotional stress, stigmatisation, discrimination and prejudice. All children develop a sense of who they are by observing responses from family, friends and the wider society. They can quickly become aware that obesity is socially undesirable and can as a result face exclusion from the very things that could help them overcome their obesity (Bouchard 2000). Obese youngsters are left out of active play by others and instead spend much time on their own and this can inevitably lead to comfort eating. Others stereotype obese children as being lazy and unclean and this attitude towards them can cause severe psychological problems. Research has linked obesity to low self image, low self esteem and even depression (British Nutritional Foundation 1999).
With such a worrying trend, what steps can be taken to try to tackle the issue of childhood obesity? Parents can take an active part. Stanway (2003) recommends that children should never be forced to eat when they say they are full. By encouraging children to finish everything on their plates, parents can take away the child’s ability to naturally regulate how much they eat. If a child insists that he or she is still hungry it is better to make an effort to encourage them to wait a few minutes because it can sometimes take a little while for messages telling a child they have had enough to reach their brains (Stanway 2003).
Growing children should be encouraged to eat a good mixture of foods, to ensure they gain a good range of nutrients essential for their health. Parents can encourage children to eat healthily by setting a good example themselves. Low fat diets, which have become popular in adults, are seen by some well-meaning parents as the way ahead. Nevertheless it is important to include some fats in a child’s diet because they are needed for their hormones and the growth of the brain and eyes (Stanway 2003). Encouraging children to become healthier eaters is more likely to succeed if it is applied to life as a whole and followed on a daily basis.
Children can become easily confused when they are faced with conflicting messages, therefore it is important that the whole family become involved (Stanway 2003). Rewarding children with food can sometimes lead to the child associating certain food types as a treat and these treats may become sources of comfort. Instead use non-food rewards. Instead families should encourage non food rewards and become more active by taking regular exercise such as walking, swimming and riding (Wilson et al 2001).
The Labour Government and Prime Minister Tony Blair, are setting clear standards for better nutrition for Britain’s children. This is being done by launching the Children’s Mini Manifesto that outlines a package of measures including plans for healthier school meals. The document also includes proposals for reducing advertising of junk food on children’s TV. The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, spoke about the launch of the manifesto she stated that while the responsibility for bringing up children lies with the parents, a little help and support from the Government often makes a lot of difference (Guardian 2005).
She continued by saying that from September the government will be introducing minimum standards on fat, sugar and salt content and tougher nutritional standards for school meals. Extra resources will be available for schools to improve their kitchen facilities so that fresh food can be prepared more easily. Fresh foodstuffs will be used to replace the cooked and chilled products that are reheated and now being served to children at school.
A recent TV series fronted by the chef Jamie Oliver highlighted not only how unhealthy children’s school dinners were but also that the number of dinner ladies has halved in the last twenty years. This has led to many schools only being able to serve processed food because of the lack of manpower to prepare fresh food (BBC 2005). The Children’s Manifesto also addressed this problem and the government promises more dinner ladies and catering staff for schools and a continued training programme to improve the knowledge and skills of all school kitchen staff (Guardian 2005). Speaking in the Observer newspaper on the subject of school dinners, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised more money per child per school dinner and a series of plans to replace junk food with organic and local fresh meats and vegetables (Observer 2005).
The health of Britain’s children today is of the utmost importance if there is to be an increase in the mortality rates of adults. This chapter has highlighted the importance of a healthy diet for children in order to avoid the long-term illnesses and risks associated with obesity. It has outlined the emotional and psychological distress that childhood obesity causes, very often due to the stereotypical attitude displayed by others ignorant of the real problem. How the government are addressing the problem of childhood obesity was discussed by examining the Children’s Mini Manifesto, in particular with relation to school dinners and advertising on TV of junk food.