Obesity: don’t feed the problem

The National Obesity Forum (NOF) has announced that National Obesity Week (NOW) kicks off on the 23rd January 2011. Originally established by medical practitioners in May 2000, NOF aims to raise awareness of the growing health impact that being overweight or obese is having on patients and the National Health Service (NHS). Given that obesity is linked to a myriad of health conditions, including metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes, educating individuals in the area of prevention is of key interest to practitioners.

Obesity is a growing problem in the UK, and the most recent estimates for England suggest that some 8.5% of 6 year olds and 15% of 15 year olds are obese. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults and consequently will suffer from a range of chronic diseases in adult life. Whilst changes in patterns of physical activity and the adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle are likely to be important factors behind the growing incidence of obesity, food choice is particularly relevant. Certainly, the development of modern food processing and refining methods means that we now eat very differently from how we did around 50 years ago. Processed food, which is made up of heavily refined ingredients and likely to have a higher ratio of calories to other essential nutrients than unprocessed foods, is now commonplace in our diets. However, our love of junk food, which is high in calories, fat, salt and sugar, and low in any real nutritional value, is having a devastating impact on our long term health. An adult’s choice in food is determined by factors including what is available (for example, seasonal vegetables), what is accessible (how close the shops are), and what is affordable (possibly the greatest influence in some cases). However, a child’s food choice is primarily influenced by what is offered to them; in the early years of life, parents and close relatives are the primary influences on a child’s diet. As children reach nursery and primary school, the variety of foods offered to them will change and expand. For this reason, we should encourage our children to develop an appetite for ‘good’ food that offers them the best nutritional value in the first years of life. Certainly, whilst food habits are not rigid during a person’s lifetime, a base for healthy food habits can be created in early childhood. Any parent is probably aware that children often appear fussy, unwilling to try new foods and new flavours. However, early experience of a particular food is a major determinant in developing a child’s food acceptance pattern, with a child’s food habits influenced by their parents’ food habits and choices. Making children aware of ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods and how these impact on health can be incorporated into meal planning and preparation. Eating together, and eating the same food, is an important element of relationships and the relationship that we have with food. We know that the choices made when we are young can impact on our health as adults; teaching our children about the kind of food we eat is incredibly beneficial in encouraging them to choose the right kinds of food to give them the best chance of enjoying good health later in life. Why not start now?

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