The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002

Roly poly children make unfit adults
Madhu Sharma

INDIA was and is still associated with malnutrition. This malnutrition was in terms of lack of nutrition, especially among the children. Ironically, while this problem still persists, problem of childhood obesity is also fast emerging. A common problem is when the child is not eating and has no appetite or is not gaining weight adequately. Another group of parents are increasingly seeking professional help because their child has the problem of obesity. In the U.S, obesity in children has alarmingly increased by 50 per cent since 1976. According to studies, about 80 per cent of adolescents become obese adults. Effective treatment and prevention of obesity must start in childhood. Obesity in children as young as two years onwards have been reported from the Indian population. Children in the pre-adolescent age group of 8-12 years are increasingly facing this problem.

Childhood obesity has emerged only recently in India, unlike in the West where it existed since long. The changing lifestyle and the advent of newer technology has made life rather luxurious. Automation and computerisation too have been contributory factors.


The reasons for obesity during childhood are:

Overfeeding: A bottle-fed child definitely takes in more milk as compared to a breast-fed infant. Excessive milk intake with little solids has been associated with an over-weight babies. Such children up till about two years have been reported with a weight varying from 17 to 20 kg.

Commercial baby foods: An increasing number of baby foods are being marketed. The media portrays a healthy ‘baby’ fed on such products, so obviously the parent is lured to feed their child with them. No doubt, they taste good due to the variety of flavours available, but are consumed in excess and for prolonged periods. It is easy for the mother to mix and feed rather than make an effort to prepare home-based diets and feed.

Junk food: The variety of such products being manufactured and heavily advertised through the media (e.g. pictures of large sodas with snacks etc) makes the young child compel the parents to procure these items and he keeps munching them anytime and anywhere. Not surprisingly, the child misses regular meals. The temptation of little surprise gifts with the products traps children. Wafers, chocolates, crunchies, specially flavoured namkeen, kurkure, burgers, pizzas, noodles are easily available in every nook and corner. Most of these items are high on calories or even empty calories since they are devoid of other important nutrients like vitamins, iron, calcium etc.

Social factors: Increasing per capita income of the middle income groups has led to an increase in the trend of social gatherings, functions, and celebrations over a couple of decades. Whether in school or at home, feasting has become an important aspect of any activity.

In school, children celebrate their birthdays by getting sweets, pastries or savouries (that are often high calories) for their classmates. In a class of an average 60-70 children, there would be an equal number of such occasions spread out not so far apart. Parents of children who may not like to spend so much may be forced to do so at the insistence of their child, who in turn is influenced by the peer group. Older children who are mobile and independent much earlier than we, the older generation people, were in our times, go a step further by celebrating with friends outside. The increasing popularity of ‘dining out’ is a trend that follow American eating habits. Increased availability of fast foods results in an increased volume of food obtained away from home which may adversely affect the nutritional quality of the diet. As per a study conducted in 1999 in Washington D.C., foods consumed by children away from home tend to be higher in total fat and saturated fat, and lower in fibre, calcium and iron foods obtained at home. According to a study conducted in the same year on the quality of children’s diet away from home, it was found that these foods contributed 20 per cent to the total calories consumed by children in 1997, rising to 32 per cent during 1994-96 and this upward trend would continue in the near future. The Indian scenario today is not far different. Better taste, ready availability, reasonable cost and more convenient, were the reasons quoted by adolescent Americans on the factors influencing their food choices as per a study quoted in the Journal of American Dietetic Association in 1999. Biscuits, wafers, namkeen are always casually munched while either just watching television at home or a movie in a cinema hall or just loitering in the school or college campus.

Lifestyle of family: In certain families, the eating pattern itself is such that meals are rich in fats and consumption of sweets, desserts are a regular feature. Toned milk may not be relished by the palette or a dish cooked in minimal oil may taste bland. Chapattis have to be smeared with ghee and dal or certain vegetables like sarson ka saag may be rejected without a scoop of butter or ghee on it. Such habits are automatically passed on to the children. Most often, children are given pacifiers in the form of chocolates, biscuits, noodles etc by parents who leave them back home with the care of baby sitters to make up for the guilt of not being able to devote adequate time to them. These practices gradually lead to children getting addicted to such foods.

Television/computer: Modern technology might have brought about a revolution in our daily life but it has not been without any negative effects on the child. Most parents have no control over their children watching various television programmes as both of them are employed. Children have access to video games and computers, also mushrooming cyber joints have made these accessible. This contributes to the child becoming a ‘couch potato’ rather than spending that time in outdoor activity. Consequently, children are gaining more weight than they should. This leads to problems of poor vision, lack of self confidence and poor scholastic performance. Parents also tend to exploit availability of video games and television in order to meet their own commitments of partying, socialising etc by leaving the children at the mercy of the small screen.

Lack of activity: A significant change responsible for obesity is the lack of exercise that children nowadays get. Earlier, children had more time to play, run about or work out compared to the children of this generation. Long school hours, the ordeal of getting ready for school and tuitions increase inactivity. Children have increased requirements of calories, proteins and other nutrients. These recommendations are based on their growth as well as the activity expected and needed. Without activity, even the recommended calories lead to a positive energy balance which accumulates as body fat contributing to obesity.

Preventive measures

  • Avoid excessive use of commercial or processed foods during the weaning stage i.e. 6-12 months.

  • Excessive intake of milk by children and infants should be avoided.

  • Encourage home-based diets and discourage use of junk foods or in-between munching.

  • A policy of exercising control on children bringing heavy sweets on birthdays should be practiced by schools.

  • Sale of fast foods/colas etc through their canteens should be regulated by schools.

  • Encouraged outdoor activity among children.

  • Control should be on viewing television or video games.

  • Avoid giving pocket money or pacifiers in the form of food to children.

  • Avoid excessive eating out.