Preventing childhood obesity

Dr. Muffazal Lakdawala is the founder & chief surgeon at Digestive Health Institute, Worli, Mumbai. Excerpts from an interview:

The incidence of childhood obesity in India is alarming. Explain the reasons behind this sudden rise in cases of childhood obesity.

Obesity in Indian children can be attributed to high consumption of junk food, wrong eating habits, sedentary lifestyle defined by little or no physical activity and lack of awareness. These days, children are offered unhealthy school meals, and prefer the Swiggy or pre-cooked junk food options to homecooked nutritious food. The easiest way to remain fit is by burning fat. Therefore parents and school managements must ensure a daily outdoors exercise regimen of at least an hour, if not more. Unfortunately, no print or broadcast media actively covers the serious problem of childhood obesity. Hence parents and children are unaware of its harmful effects.

In India, being overweight is considered normal. While it is important for a child to be healthy, how can parents differentiate between healthy and overweight?

In India, a chubby child is considered cute. Clearly, our mindsets need to change. Being overweight at a young age can lead to frequent bronchial, gastrointestinal and skin infections among other illnesses. Therefore parents must start as early as age 2 to ensure their child develops healthy food habits and has enough physical exercise during the day. My six-year-old son Kiaan never consumed any form of refined/processed sugar till he discovered birthday parties at age 4!

What preventive measures must parents and teachers take to help children overcome obesity?

Parents must educate their children on the importance of eating home-cooked meals. If at all, keep junk food as only a weekend treat. Also, pack your child’s lunch box with healthier options like fruits and dry fruits and ensure your child has at least an hour of physical activity every day by enrolling her in a sport/game of his choice. Additionally, schools must enforce a healthy lunchbox rule for parents and initiate healthy cooking workshops for children. If required, reach out to nutritionists to help plan healthy meals for your children.

How can we stop bullying/body shaming of obese children? How can schools motivate children to lead a healthy life?

Bullying or body-shaming is quite common among adults. The only way we can stop bullying amongst children is by teaching them to accept and respect others the way they are. Schools can motivate children to lead a healthy life by introducing well-being workshops, joyful physical activities and a reward system that will encourage them to stay on track. Moreover, school management can consult nutritionists to plan healthy meal options in the school canteen and ban the sale of aerated drinks.

How does the lunchbox concept impact the nutritive, physical and cognitive development of children?

Dietary habits inculcated during childhood tend to last throughout life. The age-old lunchbox concept promotes portion control, the key to a well-balanced diet of protein, fibre (complex carbohydrates) and fats. Since children get easily bored with repetitive menus, parents can maintain colourful lunchboxes and think of healthier lunch options. Explain to them with the help of colours: dark leafy greens – rich in iron, antioxidants and other micronutrients; red berries – rich in vitamin C; orange – rich in vitamin A; white – calcium and protein. This will help them develop
healthy food habits as they will learn how each colour can help them lead a healthy lifestyle. At home, I often encourage my son Kiaan to decide his own lunchbox menu. There are days when he only prefers Idli for lunch. We don’t mind obliging as long as it is sugar-free. 

According to you, how can schools improve a child’s physical well-being and what measures can they take to help a child overcome this lifestyle disease?

Earlier, schools did not realise the importance of educating a child about healthy lifestyles. Now, most schools have introduced medical health camps and counselling sessions so that children take their health seriously. While some have nutrition experts on board, others conduct collaborative events with health brands to ensure their students have fun while learning to stay healthy. Some schools also sign up with professional sports education companies to offer their fitness programmes to their students. I love Kiaan’s school for encouraging “fresh air” breaks!

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