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One of the trickiest parts of parenting young children is ensuring they get a great start in life by adopting healthy eating practices. And it’s something that’s easier said than done, as families are inundated with marketing directed at children.
Plus, there’s the challenge of constantly saying “no” to your children as you wander down aisles at the supermarket dedicated to processed and sugary foods.
But statistics now show that Australia has an obesity problem. Two-thirds of Australian adults are now considered obese – with almost a quarter of children aged between five and 17 falling into the obese and/or overweight category.
With these worrying statistics in mind, there’s now increasing pressure on parents to make sure they instil healthy eating habits at home from a very young age.
But there are positive factors about to be put in place, as the Australian government is currently developing a national obesity strategy, featuring a range of ideas to address the public health challenge.
The strategy takes into account the following factors:
- The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children in Australia.
- The causes of the rise in obesity.
- The short and long-term harm to health associated with obesity, particularly in children.
- The effectiveness of existing policies and programs to improve diets and prevent childhood obesity.
- The role of the food industry in contributing to poor diets and childhood obesity.
We need to keep those less healthy food options out of reach. We’re not placing a moral judgement on parents who give their children less healthy food from time to time, we just need to recognise they’re less healthy and best saved for special occasions.
Restricting unhealthy food marketing
Dietitian and visiting researcher at the Global Obesity Centre, Institute for Health Transformation, Deakin University, Alexandra Chung is researching how to restrict unhealthy food marketing to children.
Ms Chung says the aim is to make the environment much easier for parents to make healthy food choices when they are confronted by so much choice.
“It’s difficult to say to children that you’d prefer they didn’t eat particular food that they’re enjoying, especially when it comes to sugary food,” Ms Chung says.
“We need to keep those less healthy food options out of reach. We’re not placing a moral judgement on parents who give their children less healthy food from time to time, we just need to recognise they’re less healthy and best saved for special occasions.”
Three key steps to maintaining healthy weight
According to Ms Chung, when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight there are generally three key things parents need to do: have a healthy, balanced diet, have plenty of physical activity and make sure your child gets enough sleep.
“Research shows that those three points are all very important. When it comes to a healthy diet, I suggest parents begin with healthy habits from the outset,” Ms Chung says.
“Children learn in the early years what a healthy diet is about and that what we consider healthy is food from the core groups, for example, vegetables, fruit, grains, bread, cereal, pasta, rice, lentils etc.
“Make sure most food comes from those food groups, then try to limit highly processed and packaged foods.
“Looking at the culture of unhealthy food, if you want your kids to eat healthy food at all times, it’s important that parents model the same behaviour.
“If you’re sitting down having fish and chips for dinner and telling the kids to eat their broccoli, the kids will learn a lot from seeing what others are doing.
“So, role modelling is very important for parents, as well as grandparents and other members of the extended family network.”
Ms Chung says role modelling is also important for drinks; if parents are drinking soft drinks or cordial and telling the children to have water or milk, you risk the children asking, “Why do you get cordial and I don’t?”.
“The culture of unhealthy food is all around us, making it very difficult for parents. When it comes to drinks, the recommendations are that kids drink water and plain milk, and to limit sugary drinks or not to have any at all.
“I’d advise parents to delay the introduction to sugary drinks for as long as you can and don’t keep juice or cordial in the fridge.
“If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind! And remember how damaging sugary drinks is for your child’s teeth. Sometimes that fact resonates more with parents than issues surrounding weight gain.”
Living an active lifestyle
When it comes to incorporating an active lifestyle into your child’s world, Ms Chung (who is also the mother of two children) believes it’s a good idea to find a mixture of outdoor and indoor things you can enjoy together.
“There are so many things you can all do together as a family, such as going to the park or riding bikes around your neighbourhood, taking a trip to the beach, wandering around a wildlife sanctuary; the list can be endless.
“It’s nice for parents to realise that you can be active inside too, for example, putting on music and dancing around the living room or playing ‘hopscotch’.
“It doesn’t have to be a huge effort. If you focus on building in some of those active play activities, it can be very encouraging for parents to know you don’t have to trek around from one place to the next.
“Role modelling with diet is true also for active living; if you can role model the same behaviours, (so that you’re not just sitting on the couch for hours at a time) you can focus on going out with your kids and showing them how much fun you can have while you’re being active.
“Incorporating lots of activity into your child’s life is as important as making sure they are eating healthy food every day.”