Your Doctor

Childhood Obesity and Diabetes Prevention

Within my role as a General Practitioner and Clinical Lead for Diabetes, I can see far more clearly the monumental impact diet and lifestyle choices have on our overall health and well-being into adulthood. It is without a shadow of doubt we need to make the stamp early for good health and longevity later.

In London and the South East we are near the very top (compared to the rest of the UK) for rates of preventable conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. (Not to be confused with Type 1, which is genetic and sadly not preventable). 10 % of the NHS budget is currently spent managing diabetes and its vast array of complications. We may think of Type 2 diabetes as an ‘adult’ condition however from recent data and statistics alongside my experience, there are an increasing number of children being diagnosed with this condition. One of the primary reasons is obesity.

In 2017 around 9% of UK’s 4-5 years olds were classified as obese, by Year 6 (age 10-11 years) this figure had risen to 20%. I have been drawn more and more to try to understand how and why this is happening, and what we can do to stop it.

Food Choices 

We all have associations to pleasure and disgust with certain food groups. Foods can also be attached to happy and sad memories. Evidence suggests that the first 1000 days of life are crucial to long term habit forming. However don’t fret, because young children can still be moulded to change their pattern of behaviour around food. 

There is a network of connections that influence food choices these are (i) agents (child’s behaviour/character/parental influence) (ii) food choices (food choice, consumption, experiences, repeated exposure) and (iii) marketing and external persuasion.

We can’t change many of these facets, but we can as parents influence the choices in foods we make for ourselves and our kids, and the frame in which we contextualise them to our children. For example, the idea of a ‘treat cupboard’ or a rewards for good behaviour with unhealthy food choices can be questionable – are we really offering them a treat?

How can we as parents make a change?

• Aim for around 50% of the plate to be made of fresh vegetables. Aim for lots of colours, and steamed rather than boiled or fried to retain nutrient content.

• Increasing fibre, in the form of dark green and root vegetables, wholegrain bread, and pulses fills up their stomachs for longer.

• Make fruit skewers, this can be good for them to try a variety of fresh fruits and fun to make too!

• Limiting refined/processed sugars and fat intake. If you do offer processed things, check sugar and salt content. Low fat foods (e.g. yoghurts) are often replaced with sugar, so beware. 

• Look at the sugar content of your child’s cereal, switch to the lower percentage ones.

• Eat regularly. Have 3 meals a day. Breakfast, lunch and an evening meal. This will help keep blood glucose levels steady and control appetite. If there are ‘snacks’ keep them healthy and light.

• If you do offer your child snacks keep them to items which total less than 100 kCal. No more than two snacks per day are the current recommendations. My advice is if you can’t stick to this, don’t offer any snacks at all.

• Consume less sugar. Too much sugar and foods containing sugar can cause the blood glucose levels to rise. It is best to replace these with lower sugar and sugar free foods instead. Excess sugar is stored as fat.

• Stick to good fats e.g. Oily fish like salmon and tuna, avocado and nuts like almond and cashews.

• Stick to lean unprocessed meats. e.g. chicken.

• Try to eat with your children or at least let them see you eating the same as them. Children are mirrors, if they see you eating badly why would they do differently?

• Strip the cupboards of bad food choices, and if you have a ‘treat’ keep it as a treat rather than a daily event.

Exercise/Movement

Exercise from a young age helps set our little ones up for a lifetime of keeping active. Football, swimming, cricket, cycling or just walking, it all helps. Exercise has an equal importance in the management of obesity and weight.

Recommended guidance is that children should be doing around 60 minutes at least of moderate to vigourous activity per day.

Staying active is free, we just need to move. Walking, running, or getting the kids to help at home with housework all mean their little bodies are moving and their heart is pumping. The more active they are the stronger their muscles and skeleton become.

With small baby steps towards positive change this can work in the longer term. Give it a go and see!

Some really useful resources are listed below, these are worth a visit to learn more on this continued journey.

www.diabetes.org.uk/preventing-type-2-diabetes/can-diabetes-be-prevented

www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/physical-activity-guidelines-for-young-people.aspx

If you are concerned about your child and want some expert advice, please contact us to make an appointment with Dr Woodhouse or one of our other experiences GPs.