There’s nothing cuter than a chubby baby, but what happens when that puppy fat still seems to be sticking around as your little one grows up?

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the UAE: It’s estimated that 17 per cent of children in the country are obese, according to the World Health Organisation, which is not only costing the country $6 billion per year, it’s also having a serious impact on our little ones’ physical as well as psychological wellbeing.

The health concerns are obvious: obese children have an increased risk as adults for strokes, coronary artery disease, hypertension and diabetes.

 Meanwhile the psychological effects of obesity are also overwhelmingly evident, according to Bahee Van de Bor, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH) in London.  “Overweight and obese children are likely to remain obese into adulthood and face problems such as depression and bullying, which can further decrease children’s self-esteem and mental well-being,” says Dr Van de Bor.

However, weight and body image are incredibly sensitive issues – a study published in the Eating and Weight Disorders journal found that a parent being critical of a child’s weight can lead to emotional problems and even disordered eating in the child as they grow up.

So, while it’s crucial that we encourage children to be a healthy weight, it’s just as important that we do this in the right way. 

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First of all, you need to decipher whether there is actually a problem. For children, growth is monitored by reviewing both weight and length/height using age appropriate growth charts, says Dr Van de Bor. “Once a baby starts to walk, check that their weight centile is not consistently two centiles above their height centile. A referral to a paediatric dietitian for discussion around food intake may be useful for parents who are unsure whether their child growing appropriately. Breastfeeding exclusively up-to 6 months of age can also protect babies from gaining excessive weight.”

If there does turn out to be an issue with your child’s weight, don’t panic, and don’t put them on a diet, says Dr Van de Bor: “It is best to avoid putting your child on a ‘diet’ and refrain from counting calories or following food trends.”

Instead, focus on age-appropriate portion sizes and nourishing foods such as whole grain breads, cereals, fruit and vegetables, she says. “A dietitian can review your child’s intake in detail and offer individualised advice. Often a family approach is recommended so that the child does not feel singled out. Instead of talking about diets, teach children about nutritious foods and why it is important to eat fruit and vegetables.”

“It is important to teach your child to be comfortable with their body regardless of size,” continues Dr Vande Bor. “Focus on positive messages about food and exercise. Be a role model, encourage family meals by enjoying these at set times at the table whilst offering plenty of praise when vegetables are eaten. Teach children to enjoy their food and listen to their body by ending the meal once full.Eat healthy food yourself and offer it daily at home. Teach children that takeaways, fast foods, high fat and sugary snacks can be enjoyed occasionally but not daily and why.” 

As well as using positive language around food, encouraging children to get active will also help, says Dr Van dr Bor. “People who do exercise regularly have a 50% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and 30% lower risk of early death, dementia and depression. Overweight and obese children who exercise regularly will also see benefits in their school performance as they are able to focus and concentrate better.”

Doctors advise that children need around 60 minutes of exercise a day, which can be split between school and extra-curricular activities. “Being active and eating healthy shouldn’t feel like chores to the child and should be incorporated in an enjoyable way as simple as playing tag.”

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Tackling the problem together as a family can be a great step towards a healthy lifestyle and Ms. Van de Bor recommends that parents participate in the activity with their child and prepare a nutritious snack for them to eat immediately after the activity.

“This reduces the temptation to snack on high sugar/fat snacks later in the day.  Always offer your support and understanding and ensure that there are plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy snacks readily available for children to eat at home when hungry,” she says.

5 ways to raise a healthy child

Top tips from Lee Hudson, Consultant General Paediatrician, and Niamh Landry, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian, at GOSH to help get kids and families healthy and active.

  • Get moving

Kids need about 60 minutes a day and they need help achieving this both in school and at home. Encourage them to join a school sports team or take part in school activities. After school, look into local after school clubs or sports teams; there are lots of fun ways for kids to do 60 minutes without making it a chore. 

Activities such as cycling, walking, playing tag, jumping rope or swimming and dancing are great activities to encourage your child to do exercise.

  • Join in as a family

Exercise is more fun as a family! It should be encouraged and integrated in everyday family life. This can be small, incremental changes (e.g. deciding to walk to school rather than taking the car), to bigger changes (e.g. family trips to the swimming pool or going on a family bike ride).

  • Reducing screen time

Reducing the amount of time kids spend in front of a screen, such as a computer, television or video game consoles is also beneficial.

  • Be a good role model

All the family need to be on board with a healthy ‘get fit, get active’ attitude so the child doesn’t feel odd or singled out. This will soon make this healthy attitude a normal, everyday part of family life.

  • Eat well

It’s important that the body is fuelled correctly to feel the benefits of doing exercise. Make sure the family are eating regular, healthy and properly portioned meals every day. Watch out of sugary snacks and drinks in between meals and instead snack on fruit or nuts and drink water where necessary.