Preschoolers are sweet little things and we're not just talking about their temperament. Many eat a lot of sugar and while it's tempting to reward young children with treats, and celebrate birthdays with cakes, cookies and lolly bags, all this sweet stuff isn't good for growing bodies…or even grown ones, for that matter.
Of course, sugar isn't the only culprit. As well as being sugary, lots of everyday foods are highly processed and contain much more salt and saturated fat than you think. As a result, many children are carrying extra weight in their early years and are at increased risk of tooth decay, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease moving forward.
All hope is not lost, though. Let's see how we can slow down the sugar rush and make healthy food choices in the face of unsettling rates of childhood obesity here and in other countries.
Childhood obesity rates and responses around the world
The UK Experience
In the land of crumpets and honey, nine in 10 preschoolers have been found to eat too much sugar, 22 per cent are overweight by the time they go to school, and almost one in 10 are obese by primary school age.
These are alarming statistics, but in better news, it is great to hear that Leeds has become the first British city to reverse its preschooler obesity rates.
Thanks to a city-wide initiative, parents in Leeds have been taught simple yet effective strategies to improve their children's eating habits. Simple actions like setting proper meal times, reducing snacks and offering healthy food choices, has led to a reduction in the rate of obese children starting primary school (from 9.4 per cent to 8.8 per cent) and it shows how small changes can make a big difference.
The NZ Experience
Childhood obesity is also a concern in the Southern Hemisphere. The New Zealand Health Survey 2017/2018 found that 12 per cent of children aged two to 14 are obese (up from eight per cent in 2006/2007), and this figure increases to 17 per cent in Māori children and 30 per cent in Pacific children.
To tackle this weighty issue, the Government launched a childhood obesity plan in 2015, with 22 initiatives focusing on food, the environment and physical activity. A cornerstone of this is the B4 School Check, which offers a free health check for four-year-olds and sees obese children being referred to a health professional for assessment and 'family-based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions'.
Between 2010 and 2016, there was a decline in childhood obesity amongst four-year-olds, but Stuff notes that progress is slow and kids from low-income areas are more likely to be overweight than those from high-income areas. In response, there have been calls for 'More regionally-focused public health campaigns' and the Government is said to be reviewing its approach to obesity.
The Australian Experience
Over the ditch, the ABC reports one quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese and 41 per cent of their daily energy consumption is coming from processed foods.
As a consequence, there has been a push for manufacturers to improve the healthiness of its food and put a Health Star Rating on every product. The George Institute for Global Health assessed the nutritional content of 32,000 products and found that only a third of them carry the rating. It's urging the Government to bring in a mandatory Health Star Rating to help consumers choose healthier versions of products. They're also calling for the Government to increase the scope of its Healthy Food Partnership and are urging manufacturers to improve the healthiness of all the foods they are making and marketing.
Salty snacks, fatty foods and sweets treats are often presented as fun and kid-friendly, and the increased marketing of unhealthy foods is seen as, 'A significant factor contributing to the increased prevalence of obesity'. As a result, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) is recommending that the Government introduce regulations that reduce children's exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods.
All in all, childhood obesity remains a big problem in developed countries, but governments and parents can help to change children's eating habits – and weight – for the better.
How parents can encourage children to eat healthily
Like the parents in Leeds, it's important to set proper meal times, reduce snacks and offer your child healthier, fresher and more savoury alternatives.
To improve your child's diet, it's recommended to:
- Cut back on packaged foods. Read the label and avoid foods that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.
- Add protein to your child's breakfast, lunch and dinner. This will release energy slowly, over about four hours, and keep them feeling fuller for longer.
- Give your child water and milk to drink, not juice and soft drinks.
- Give them a child-sized portion, not an adult-sized one, with half the plate full of veggies, a quarter of starchy food and a quarter of protein.
- Have healthy snacks on hand. Apples and carrot sticks instead of chips and lollies.
- Avoid using a food-based reward system. If you want to reward good behaviour, use fun family activities or stickers, rather than edible treats.
- Focus on being a positive role model by eating well and exercising yourself.
'Sometimes foods' should be eaten sometimes, not all the time, and parents, governments, food manufacturers and marketers all have a role to play in combating childhood obesity.
Together, we can shape good eating habits early in life and help children reach for the stars – not the sugar – as they grow, learn and develop.