ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 36

Growing up in a toxic, obesity-conducive environment

With school tuck shops selling unhealthy snacks and working mothers having little time to give a wholesome breakfast to children, obesity among the younger generation is fast becoming a reality

By Carol Aloysius

First it was the spectre of malnutrition that hounded the Sri Lankan child. But while child malnutrition is still a critical problem with a reported 29% of children under five years said to be malnourished and 60,000 babies born low weight, a new spectre is slowly but steadily raising its head among Lanka’s school-going population; namely, obesity.

Once a problem of mainly adults of mostly affluent homes who could afford to stuff themselves with rich starchy, carbohydrate high foods, today obesity is increasingly visible not just among rich but not so rich kids across the country. Not surprising when there is so much cheap junk food freely available in take away snack bars, eating houses and even school tuck shops.

Whatever happened to those nutritious snacks that we were served as children in our school tuck shops? Today, instead of the protein high kadale, moong ata, roti , string hoppers and maalu pang that this writer recalls being served in the school tuck many moons ago, most school tuck shops invariably dish up rolls and cutlets dripping with oil, pastries that have more flour than filling, and a myriad sugar based foods to their hungry young customers many of whom have arrived in school without breakfast. To compound matters, these same kids have to be content with eating `instant’ meals laced with calories and starch when they return home for dinner as well, since their overworked working mothers have no time to cook them a proper balanced meal. The result ? A generation of children growing up in a toxic, obesity-conducive environment fed on mostly on high calorie, high starchy foods instead of the high fibre, protein and calcium rich foods that their growing bodies need.

Sadly, this syndrome seems to be visible across the world albeit more so in developed countries. So widespread is it that the WHO has described obesity as a worldwide epidemic and appealed to health authorities across the world to alert parents and raise awareness on how obesity can be prevented.

On a recent visit to Queensland which has one of the highest incidences of obesity in Australia, I was taken aback by the number of obese persons I encountered on almost every street; from school children and infants to young adults. The very high rate of obesity in the state recently prompted health authorities to issue a warning to parents to pack in more protein and high fibre foods into their kids’ lunch boxes instead of junk foods, if they wished them to grow up into healthy adults. What’s more, they went a step further and asked the kids themselves to take charge of their lunch boxes to ensure that they don’t contain junk foods. Obesity is clearly a cause for concern in Australia.

The Australian Society for the Study of Childhood Obesity (ASSCO) recently revealed that obesity is continuing to rise among children at an annual rate of 1%. This may not seem much, but the trend suggests that half of all young Australians would be overweight by the year 2025. A spokesman for the society Health even went on to describe obesity as “the single-most threat to the health of our population. The magnitude is hard to recognise. It is intolerable,” he said.

With the rise of childhood obesity in Sri Lanka following the flood of cheap readily accessible junk foods it is but a matter of time when it can reach the same frightening proportions as in the West, local health authorities believe. Unless parents take the trouble to prevent its cause.

Unfortunately not many parents know how serious obesity, especially in the young, really is.

Obesity affects the whole body, from health to emotional well being. The medical risks are many. They include chronic conditions like Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and joint problems to strokes, in adulthood.

Equally disturbing are the psychological problems that can arise from obesity. A fat child is more likely to be bullied, called names and suffer from low self esteem leading to depression and a drop in his class grades. Child psychologists say that these are very real issues that parents have to address from the outset.

The good news is that this widespread `disease’ is preventable. And it is here that parents have a critical role to play. According to nutritionists preventing obesity is all about changing one’s life style.

Lack of domestic help, and the fact that both parents in most families work outside their homes, has led to mothers taking the easy way out of sending their kids without breakfast to school and instead giving them money to buy their breakfast from the school tuckshop or a nearby snack bar. Alternatively , they hurriedly make up a sandwich with a carbohydrate high, ready to eat filling, which serves as both breakfast and lunch for their offspring.

“Mothers must take the trouble to wake up early and make a proper breakfast for their children together with a balanced lunch,” says a nutritionist. “For this, they must change their lifestyle first. Parents need to have a whole family approach to a healthy lifestyle.”

“You need to make sure that the whole family is eating well balanced wholesome meals at regular mealtimes,” she stresses.

While lack of exercise is often cited as the main cause of obesity, paediatricians now believe that excessive eating or eating the wrong foods is the real culprit for obesity in children. However much exercise a child does the benefits are negated if the child continues to eat starchy sugar high foods, says a nuitritionist. So beware of giving your child regular treats of cakes, chocolates and other sugar based foods as well as pastries. As she says, “ What were earlier rare `treats’ have now become regular `treats’ in most homes with kids getting such treats 3-4 or 5 times a day in addition to what they spend at junk food stores with their pocket money.”

Instead of stacking your fridge with cakes, rolls, pastries and sweetened drinks she suggests placing dried fruits and fresh fruits on the table for kids to munch on when they are hungry.

The recent news that Anchor Newdale, a leading local dairy food company has just put out a new ready to eat snack for school children which combines both milk and rice is both welcome and a step in the right direction, an attempt to incorporate our staple diet with milk into a nutritious snack for children.

Hopefully other milk food companies will come up with more such innovative ideas to fill a growing need for nutritious snacks for our school going population.

Combating obesity requires a concerted effort, from parents and teachers to food manufacturers targeting especially the young, to school authorities. The time to act is now. Tomorrow may be too late.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.