Posted on September 08, 2014

Parents and schools can play a key role in curbing childhood obesity, which is growing at an alarming rate and has become one of the most serious health concerns across the world, according to Hamad Medical Corporation’s (HMC) Chairman of Internal Medicine, Professor Abdul-Badi Abou-Samra. According to 2010 statistics released by the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide nearly 43 million children (under the age of five) are estimated to be overweight or obese. If preventive measures prove to be unsuccessful, this figure is estimated to rise to nearly 60 million by 2020.

“The fundamental cause of childhood obesity is associated with lifestyle; children have become accustomed to very little physical activity and are consuming too many calories from highly-processed foods and beverages,” Professor Abou-Samra said adding that: “the best approach to preventing childhood obesity is to allow more opportunities for children to participate in activities that require physical movement. This is the responsibility of both parents and schools and can have a very positive and lasting impact on a child’s health.” 

According to the International Obesity Task Force, about 35 percent of young boys and about 20 percent of young girls, in Qatar, are thought to be obese. Professor Abou-Samra said children have a limited understanding of how calorie intake affects their health, noting that parents should take charge by becoming strong role models for their children’s health. “Parents are the ones who decide what to cook and where to buy their food. If they opt for healthier meals that include legumes, whole grains, vegetables and fruits, their children will follow the same eating pattern,” Professor Abou-Samra said. Consumption of fizzy drinks and artificial juices should be limited for children as these drinks contain high levels of sugar and enable fat buildup, he said.

Obesity is a condition that results from the accumulation of excess fat in the body and is often triggered by developmental, environmental and sometimes genetic factors. The condition is classified through the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight and can be used to indicate if an individual is overweight, obese, underweight or normal weight. In general, a BMI of 18 to 24.9 is considered healthy, while a score of over 40 is considered morbidly obese; those that fall into this category have an increased risk of premature death and disability.

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Professor Abou-Samra explained that in children aged two to 18, BMI changes during growth are common and normal.  Therefore, an age-specific BMI is used for diagnosis and classification of obesity in children. He explained that there are numerous medical implications of childhood obesity, including an increased chance of contracting different kinds of metabolic diseases. “In addition to a heightened risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, an obese child may be prone to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, asthma or sleep apnea.”

“Rewarding children with candy or a chocolate bar for their achievements or good behavior is highly discouraged,” Professor Abou-Samra said. “A single candy bar that appears to be small may have up to 300 calories; if a child consumed four candy bars each day, that would mean the child will reach the daily calorie intake deemed appropriate for an adult just by eating candy.” Instead, Professor Abou-Samra suggested that parents should consider healthier alternatives, such as taking their children outdoors for games and sports, or to a park or the beach.

Other tips for curbing childhood obesity include:

  • Limiting the number of times the family eats out, especially at fast food restaurants where food items are often high in fat and calories.
  • Avoiding ‘convenience foods’ such as pre-packaged meals, cookies, noodles and chips.
  • Limiting the number of hours children spend watching television, playing video games and using electronic devices such as tablets and laptops, as these promote a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Being more active by participating in physical activities.
  • Respecting a child’s feeling of satiety and not forcing them to eat when they are no longer hungry.

Professor Abou-Samra encouraged schools to promote healthy eating habits and exercise by offering healthy meals and snacks in their cafeterias and increasing time for sports and physical fitness from once a week to preferably every day. If parents are concerned about the increasing weight of their child, they are advised to consult a healthcare professional who can offer diet modification plans and motivational counseling.

Dietetics and nutrition services are available on referral at Hamad General, Al Wakra and Al Khor Hospitals.  Highly qualified educators are also available on referral at the pediatrics section of the National Diabetes Center, located at Hamad General Hospital. 

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