Around a third (36%) of New Zealand children are overweight or obese. This figure rises to 60% of Pacific Island children and 40% of Maori children. But why are so many of our children now carrying too much weight? How do we know whether a child is overweight or not and what can we do to help a child achieve and maintain a healthy weight?
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Childhood is a time of rapid growth and development, and a time when many habits and behaviours are set. A healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating, in childhood will help to ensure a healthy future.Here are some simple guidelines for healthy growth and development.
A variety of foods every day
This includes food from all the four food groups:
Grain foods are a great source of carbohydrate, which provide energy as well as fibre, vitamins and minerals. Preschoolers need at least 4 serves a day of breads and cereals, very active school children need 5 serves and older children need at least 6 serves. Serving sizes for children are approximately 1 roll, 1 medium slice bread, 1 cup cornflakes and 1 cup of pasta or rice. Children under five years have small stomachs and can’t eat the same amount of fibre as older children or adults so white breads and cereals (such as cornflakes) can be suitable choices.
Vegetables and fruit provide carbohydrates, are high in fibre and contain lots of vitamins and minerals, making them the perfect snack food. Preschoolers need at least 2 servings of fruit and 2 servings of vegetables each day. School children need at least 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables each day. A serve is the amount that fits into your child’s hand. Encourage them to choose from a rainbow of colours, e.g. a red tomato, purple grapes, orange carrots, green broccoli and yellow capsicums.
Milk and milk products are an important source of protein and calcium for this age group. Calcium is particularly important for growing strong bones. Children need at least 2-3 serves every day. Serving sizes are 1 cup of milk, 1 pottle of yoghurt, 2 slices of cheese or 2 scoops of ice cream. After two years of age you can start to introduce reduced and low fat milk and milk products if your child is eating well, and height and weight are following the normal growth curves.
Lean meat and alternatives including lean meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, dried peas, beans and lentils are great sources of protein and provide important vitamins and minerals such as iron and zinc. Children need some of these foods each day: for example, 2 slices of cooked meat, ¾ cup of mince, 1 medium fillet of cooked fish, 1 chicken drumstick, 1 egg or 3/4 cup dried, cooked beans. Parents of children following vegetarian diets should seek expert advice to make sure their diets are adequate in essential amino acids, vitamins & minerals, especially those on vegan diets which exclude all animal derived foods.
The best drinks for children are water and milk. Small bodies heat up more quickly so drinking plenty of plain water will keep them cool, and also help them concentrate at school. Milk is an important source of calcium, which is essential for healthy development of bones and teeth. If your child doesn’t like milk, they will need an adequate calcium intake from other sources such as cheese, yoghurt, nuts and calcium-fortified soy products. Leave soft drinks and fruit juice for occasional drinks, in small amounts. Children should not drink energy drinks, which have high levels of caffeine. Some children are reluctant water drinkers - a few ice cubes or chilling a jug of water in the fridge can be more appealing, or try squeezing a dash of lemon juice or adding a splash of fruit juice to water for a bit of extra flavour.
Regular physical activity
Physical activity is very important for healthy growth, and to help prevent your child from becoming overweight. Swimming, outdoor games and walking or cycling to school are great ways to fit in regular physical activity. Some schools have a Walking School Bus programme where adults walk children to school. Remember that sitting for extended periods of time in front of the tv or computer screen is not good for health. Encourage children to move regularly and do some exercise that causes them to huff and puff. This will improve their physical fitness.
Fussy eaters can cause a lot of distress to parents and other family members. It is good to remember children are very good at responding to their appetites and therefore may eat most of their food as snacks rather than at meal times.
Here are some ideas to help your fussy eater:
Involve children in shopping and food preparation as this will increase their interest in eating.
Offer nutritious snacks – for example a pottle of yoghurt, a slice of toast, a piece of cheese, a glass of milk or some fruit or vegetables. Smaller sized portions can be easier for children to manage so try fruit chopped up and vegetable sticks.
We can associate foods with certain occasions, positively or negatively, and children can do this too. Children can learn to prefer foods they associate with being happy, or conversely dislike a food if they associate with being unhappy, anxious or unwell. So try to make mealtimes enjoyable and if a food is not eaten just take it away rather than making it the focus of an argument. If the child is hungry later, re-offer the food provided previously rather than something different.
Make meal times a time for eating together, where your child sees others eating the same foods they are being offered. You can also be a good role model if you are eating together.
Regular mealtimes can also help, so a child knows when to expect to eat, rather than feeling uncertain or unsure
It can take up to ten times for a new food to be accepted, so don’t worry if a food is rejected several times before being eaten sometime later – and it can be months, not just days or weeks.
If you are concerned about your child’s food intake, please contact your doctor or consult a registered nutritionist or dietitian for advice and support.