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Honey, We are Killing the Kids!
Adoring mothers are pushing their kids into early graves. In fact, increasing numbers of parents will outlive their own children.
The UK has achieved a terrifying statistic: the three-year old couch potato. Recent figures show that young people, especially in Scotland, are fatter than virtually anywhere else in the world bar Italy and Malta. Yes, they are fatter here than in the Big Apple.
It starts in the cradle and ends in an early grave. One in five children in nurseries and toddlers’ groups is already overweight, and it gets worse. Even at the age of three, it’s 16 per cent, at eight it’s nearly one in four, and by 12, a horrifying 33 per cent of overweight kids is classed as obese. That means they weigh at least 20 per cent more than they should.
Fatness kills. It leads directly to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. It is leading to a sudden surge in Type II diabetes which used to be associated with middle age, obesity and lack of exercise. Now teenagers are developing the condition, with signs of insulin production slowing down in the face of dietary and weight pressure. According the Department of Health, at least 58 per cent of these cases are directly attributable to carrying too much weight. Diabetes is the biggest cause of blindness in the western world and it can lead to kidney failure, gangrene – which leads to limb amputations – and it increases the likelihood of heart disease.
“Type II diabetes is not ‘mild’ diabetes,” says Dr Amanda Vezey, Diabetes UK’s leading diabetes advisor. “There is no such thing as mild diabetes. Diabetics are at a substantially greater risk of suffering from heart disease and strokes, and undetected – as Type II diabetes can often be for up to nine to 12 years – serious complications will develop that cannot be reversed. These include nerve damage, potential kidney and sight damage and blindness.”
Dr Vezey warns that changing lifestyles and reduced exercise is ultimately going to shorten lives, but she also wants to add a more positive note. “On the plus side, once we diagnose it, Type II diabetes can be very successfully controlled so long as we have the support of the family. Weight reduction, healthier eating and increased exercise are crucial components in that.”
Better still, she adds, “if parents act to ensure that their children are eating well and are physically active, then they will drastically reduce the risk of their offspring developing Type II diabetes in the first place.”
Fat mothers tend to rear overweight children. Just as the offspring of smokers are more likely to smoke, the offspring of criminals more likely to offend, so the progeny of obese mothers follow the family pattern.
If it’s Mum’s fault that the children are playing truant, getting into fights, shop-lifting and becoming graffiti artists, then why shouldn’t she be blamed for having fat children?
“It’s still Mum who tends to control what’s in the shopping trolley so she has to be held responsible for what the family eats,” says Pat Johnson, an Edinburgh nutrition expert who sees the regular impact of too many calories in and too few out. “I think we have to accept that all the advice in the world isn’t going to be enough. It’s our whole attitude to food and exercise that needs to change.
“I think perhaps Mothers tend to associate food with love. If you deny your children the food they ask for, then somehow you deny them love, but the truth is that the reverse is probably more loving.”
Our society of instant gratification, from credit cards to ready meals, has bred children with different expectations from a generation ago. Thirty years ago, it was a treat if you got a small packet of sweets. Now, children on the supermarket run expect a kilogram box of chocolate Heroes alongside the designer sweatshirts in larger sizes.
“It’s very hard when she asks for crisps or biscuits,” says Annemarie Macleod, a Glasgow mother with a 13 stone 13 year old. “If I say no, she sulks and says I don’t love her. I don’t want that.”
The Scottish Executive outlined its £24 million strategy to improve the standard of school meals last year. It has spent another fortune setting up the Healthy Living campaign with the Helpline that five people rang. Scotland’s NHS is spending £170 million a year on obesity and obesity-related conditions, but our figures both physically and numerically go on expanding relentlessly.
Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer at the UK Department of Health, this week reported the horrific news of a three year old who had died as a result of heart failure brought on by obesity. He fears it’s the tip of the iceberg. Will the next such three year old fatality be Scottish?
Maybe it’s time to make mealtimes a bit of a battleground again? That’s the view of Dr Theodore Dalrymple, a familiar figure in the media health columns. “Instead of putting properly cooked food before a child on the premise of eat-it-or-go-hungry, the mother acts more like a waiter at a restaurant, taking orders with flattering but insincere solicitude. It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that the child chooses junk rather than char-grilled vegetables.
“In fact, what the mother is doing is avoiding the unpleasant and nerve-racking but very necessary struggle over meals that mothers have often experienced in the past. By giving the child what will bring an immediate end to his resistance, she imagines that she is being kind and considerate, when in fact she is being cowardly and callous. She prefers her own immediate peace and quiet to the child’s long-term good.”
Obesity rates in Scotland are among the worst not just in Europe but in the world. Nearly one in five of us are overweight, and we’re passing it on to our kids. There’s no point claiming it’s something genetic. It isn’t. It’s all down to the way we eat and our unwillingness to move far enough from the TV to expend a few calories on exercise.
Even the All-party Parliamentary Group on Obesity is panic-stricken and talks of “the current epidemic of childhood obesity.” Its members agree the issue needs to be pushed up the political and policy agenda, but its recommendations for more PE and better school meals aren’t making the slightest impression. The Prime Minister says he wants to see at least two hours a week of physical exercise in schools, but problem just keeps expanding.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” they say. “In 1989 a study found that five per cent of children were classified as obese. By 1998, the figure had almost doubled. The incidence of obesity is also increasing with age; according to an English survey in 1996, approximately 17 per cent of 15 year olds are obese,” says Dr Penny Gibson, Consultant Paediatrician and Adviser on childhood obesity for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
By the age of 12, 33 per cent of Scotland’s kids are far too heavy – obesity is classified as more than 20 per cent heavier than they should be – and even at just three years old, the 16 per cent figure is almost as bad. At least one three year old recently died of heart failure as a direct result of being obese.
Compounding the high-fat, low-fibre, refined carbohydrate food choices, there are two other crucial factors: lack of exercise and bigger portions. More of our kids grab their lunch in the shape of a burger and chips at MacDonalds where an extra 30p gives you a mega portion. Add a big fizzy drink and you have enough calories and saturated fat to add up to around 800 calories, more than a half a day’s requirement for a teenager.
Our ever-increasing tendency to take the children to school by car and have them spend their leisure time crouched in front of the TV or playing computer games could be construed as another means of making life easier for parents. Yes, there are safety considerations, but there are also congested roads packed with school-run traffic and the option of walking to school with the children. That would be good for parents too.
The National Obesity Forum has called for compulsory PE for all school children. Some proponents go further, arguing that the reintroduction of team sports for all would not only improve the health of the nation but would also improve social skills and build a sense of personal responsibility.
While we issue demands that “the government needs to do more,” maybe we should be looking towards our own responsibilities as parents with a measure more discipline and a measure less fat.
Jamie is 10. Here’s his average day’s food and activity
7.30 Get up
7.45 Big bowl of Cheerios with full cream milk
8.01 Pay on PlayStation
8.45 Jump in car for school run
8.50 Arrive at school
8.56 Get can of Coke from school vending machine
9.01 School starts
10.30 Break. Large packet of crisps and can of Coke
10.45 Lessons resume
12.15 Lunch. Visit chip van. Large portion of chips, burger in bun, Coke
12.45 Hang out in school grounds chatting to mates
13.30 Lessons resume
14.45 Break. Bottle of Irn-Bru
15.01 Lessons resume
15.45 School finishes. After school activities include football and swimming but Jamie is picked up by car at the school gate and goes home.
16.01 Watch TV while snacking on crisps, biscuits and soft drinks
17.30 Mum makes tea. Beans, sausages and chips
18.01 Jamie goes to his room, spends half an hour on homework, then plays on his PlayStation until 10.00 pm when he goes to bed with a drink of hot chocolate and a slice of buttered toast with jam
Approximate calorie intake for the day 3000
Recommended intake for 10 year old 1600
Calories expended by Jamie 850
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