This week we caught up with Judith Manson, the author of the book ‘Child Obesity: A Parent’s Guide‘. The book, which offers advice on tackling obesity within children, has recently been updated with a new version – so we wanted to ask Judith about her updated book, and about childhood health issues on the whole.
We understand the book ‘Child Obesity: A Parent’s Guide’ has been updated for 2011 – what sort of updates have been made to the book?
As well as up-to-date facts, figures and information, the new book contains more streamlined advice, a wider range of easy-to-follow recipes and meal suggestions, as well as an updated section of resources, links and further reading. I have also included information about children from certain black and ethnic minority backgrounds who may be more at risk of weight problems, along with specialist sources of help and advice.
What started your interest in child obesity?
As a parent, children’s health is obviously important to me and as a health writer found when talking to medical professionals and researchers that the topic of children’s weight kept coming up time and again particularly in connection with conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma. It wasn’t until I started to look specifically at the problem of child obesity and children’s lifestyles and eating patterns that I fully appreciated how widespread and serious the problem was.
How big a problem would you say child obesity is in the UK?
At first I thought the problem was down to a few children with bad eating habits, but it’s much more serious that that. Some experts say it is the biggest health threat we face. At the moment, in a typical class of 30 primary school children, you would expect 3 or 4 of them to be obese. One in five children are overweight by the age of five now. There are suggestions that if trends continue, in 20 years time, half the UK population will be obese and the NHS won’t be able to cope with the knock-on effects that being overweight has on people’s health.
Is obesity a bigger problem now than it was 30 years ago and, if so, why?
Lots of things have changed over the last 30 years in the way we live our lives. More people drive, children don’t walk to school as much as they did, the rise of the Internet and runaway popularity of console games has meant that children don’t need to leave their homes to play. High fat, ready meals and convenience food is widely available and is often cheaper and easier to find than simple fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and groceries. People don’t do heavy work as much as they did and are more inactive. Cookery skills, family meal times and the understanding of what makes a balanced meal have all gone out the window.
Why do you think many parents struggle with obesity in their children?
Modern life is busy, parents juggle work and kids and if money and time is tight, the easiest option can seem to be takeaways or ready meals. People don’t really understand what obese or overweight means. Studies have shown that parents are not able to tell by looking whether their child is overweight and very much see obesity as someone else’s problem. Many people don’t have basic cooking skills or know-how involved in feeding a family. A lot of parents may choose to ignore the fact that their child has a weight problem as they feel it could reflect on their own parenting skills and unhealthy habits.
How important would say it is to educate parents on exercise and diet for children?
It’s important that parents should know what their children need to eat and how active they need to be, but it’s probably more important that they should get the opportunities to make changes to their lifestyles that will help their children. The whole process needs to start in schools so that children get a feel for food and an understanding of what proportions they can eat. Experts believe informing mothers to be about healthy eating is as important as all the other antenatal screenings and tests.
How seriously do you believe child obesity is treated in the UK when compared to other social issues, such as drugs, alcohol and behaviour?
Obesity is a health problem rather than a social problem. It’s a lot better understood than many other social problems. The solution is also very, very simple-eat less and be more active. There is a lot of evidence about obesity and it’s well understood in a way that a lot of other social problems aren’t. Government and the authorities talk a lot about healthy eating and children’s weight and there is a lot of information and help available, but it doesn’t seem as if things are being put into practice. It’s still quite hard to make healthy choices such as using public transport. Our high streets are still packed with fast food takeaways and many people have personal safety issues with letting their children out to play unsupervised.
What do you think of the so called ‘healthy options’ children are given when eating out? Are restaurants, schools and universities doing enough?
Since Jamie Oliver took on the challenge, schools seem to have cleaned up their act, but the fact is that most secondary school pupils don’t eat in school anymore, which makes trying to provide healthy options for older children a waste of time. Kids menus can be a dismal choice of chips with chicken nuggets, burger, fish fingers or pizza and this isn’t really helpful. I think there’s scope for improvement & working out better ways of making wholesome food appealing to children.
What are your views on the advertising of fast food restaurants on TV, and their associations with sponsoring sports events (such as the 2012 Olympics)?
This is quite a hot topic at the moment and a couple of years back, the UK Government acted to ban certain adverts featuring food that was aimed at children. I don’t believe it’s helpful for fast-food brands and fizzy drink manufacturers to sponsor major sporting events when for many children, over-consumption of these foods can be pinpointed as the cause of their weight problem.
What advice would you have on new parents who want to ensure their child eats healthily?
New parents are probably more switched on to healthy eating than parents of older children. Anyone who is worried about their child’s weight should speak to their health visitor or family doctor for advice. Although there is a wide variation, most towns and cities in the UK will have courses, classes, support groups and information available for free, but it’s often up to individual parents to ask. Everyone agrees that breast-feeding for as long as you can is the best start for children. Weaning is the stage to introduce good eating habits for life. Healthy eating actually gets trickier as children get older and start to express preferences. It’s accepted that children take their cues from what their families do, so it’s important for parents to make sure their own habits are healthy and they’re not setting a bad example to their children. Making sure you have basic cookery skills and can put together, simple healthy meals is important, as well as avoiding stocking up on bumper packs of sweets, treats, snacks and fizzy drinks.
You can buy Judith’s book, Child Obesity: A Parent’s Guide, right here: http://www.need2knowbooks.co.uk/child-obesity-a-parents-guide/