Puppy fat could be a lifelong worry

COULD negligence in childhood mean a high price paid in adult life? Childhood obesity has been back in the news in recent weeks following numerous debates and a national designated conference on this issue.

By Debbie Watson

COULD negligence in childhood mean a high price paid in adult life? Childhood obesity has been back in the news in recent weeks following numerous debates and a national designated conference on this issue. Debbie Watson asks whether Suffolk's children could be creating a ticking timebomb for themselves.

HOW many times have we adults been told it? A moment on the lips means pounds on the hips.

Piling on the weight in adulthood is just one implication of over-eating, but for our British youngsters the consequences are potentially far worse.

In a recent special conference to underline the problems of childhood obesity, experts warned that kids with bad dietary habits and poor exercise habits would not only be prone to more body fat, but would also suffer poorer social, educational and economic prospects in their adult years.

The suggestion clearly offers a stark warning in the direction of any parent in charge of household food.

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No longer, is it acceptable to deem excessive extra weight as puppy fat. No longer, is it acceptable to feed a child a diet of crisps and convenience products and to dismiss their calorific content as being harmless childhood treats.

Such is the problem with childhood obesity that in Europe the prevalence of excess weight has risen from around ten per cent in the early 1980s to around 20pc in the later 1990s.

With figures like this it is hardly surprising that the Glasgow-based conference was seen as a perfect

opportunity to bring experts together, in the hope that they initiate change.

At ground level, a lot of positive work is being done within schools themselves – particularly here in Suffolk.

It is at this phase of a child's life when nutrition can more easily be taught, and implemented, if approached in the right way.

Alison Emberly is the Healthy Schools co-ordinator for Suffolk – part of a national project to improve eating habits.

She said that this county is working particularly hard to get the right messages across to children at a young age.

"There is a statutory requirement that schools should discuss health and eating habits with their pupils," said Alison. "Over and above that, we in Suffolk are being particularly proactive about ways in which we can stress that message in individual school lessons and in the food that is being served to our youngsters."

She said: "It's clear from research that children today are more prone to obesity and consequently more at risk of health problems.

"We're very aware of that and so we need to start teaching the importance of healthy diet as early in their lives as possible."

The Healthy Schools initiative seems to have made huge progress.

"Schools across this county are putting a lot of thought into the menus that they provide each week," said Alison.

"We have also got some schools who have developed healthy snack shops, and others who have banned unhealthy foods altogether."

Clearly this approach can only help persuade youngsters to spend their dinner money on healthier options – but there's still a long way to go.

According to a new survey, schoolchildren in the UK are spending more than £1.3billion a year on food, but, to the disappointment of health experts, £8.33million a week is spent on unhealthy snacks consumed while travelling to and from school.

In a conference last month Professor Philip James – now chairman of the International Obesity Task Force – insisted not enough was being done to tackle the problem at school level and specifically in the food industry itself.

He said: "The fast food and soft drink industries have enormous turnovers, there are enormous vested interests which we need to confront.

"If we don't, the epidemic of childhood obesity is going to rip through Europe so fast - with Britain being in the worst category – that we will have clinics of diabetic children of 13 or 14 years of age.

"If this is the case, the evidence is pretty clear that they will have major problems of blindness by the time they get into their thirties."

Alison claims it is essential that parents, carers, teachers – and the community at large – join together to encourage a healthier lifestyle among the young.

"It's a team job. We have to look at a big picture and that's exactly why we work closely with Sport England.

"We've got to look at exercise, sensible eating, and also at the concept of a healthy attitude toward food. Very often we also forget that we need to look at psychological wellbeing. Without that there are other dangerous roads that youngsters could head down."

Weblink: www.wiredforhealth.gov.uk/healthy/healsch.html

What the kids think…

Youngsters at Whitton Primary School in Ipswich are typical of the childhood attitude toward health and food.

In the main they see no harm in grabbing their preferred packet of sweets or munching on chips at tea-time.

Matthew Percy is a regular packed luncher along with many of his friends. He said: "Everyday I'll have sweets after school – but I still don't get fat so that's OK.

"I always have crisps and chocolate in my lunchbox and my favourite food for when I'm at home is pizza."

Matthew's words paint just a small part of the picture.

His classmate nine-year-old Chelsea Garwood said: "I don't like vegetables so I usually have chips with my dinner. I'd say I'm very healthy."

Rebecca Carter, also nine, takes a slightly different approach to her diet. "I eat loads of salad," she said. "My mum tries to make me eat healthy food and I don't mind because I don't like chocolate."

Abi Brooke makes sure her healthy lifestyle involve lots of sport: "I play football twice a week for a team so I'd say I keep quite fit – then it's not so bad when I have some chocolate."

Aid Backhouse admits that mum's influence is definitely important: "She makes me eat a lot of vegetables, but I don't really mind. I quite like some of them."