Should we be concerned about a child’s weight?

Between 1985 and 1995 the rate of childhood overweight doubled and obesity tripled in Australia. Unfortunately, overweight and obesity in Australia continues to rise. Results from the 2007-2008 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that one in four children aged 5-17 years are now overweight or obese1.

Increasing rates of overweight and obesity among children and adults is a worldwide health issue and the World Health Organisation has established an International Obesity Taskforce to help combat the problem.

Obesity can cause physical, social and emotional health problems in childhood and teenage years. Weight related health problems in children include:

Obese children in Australia have a 25 to 50 percent chance of becoming obese adults2. This chance increases with the degree of overweight and the later into adolescence the excess body weight is carried. It is also greater if one or both parents are overweight or obese.

Overweight and obesity happen  when we take in more energy then what we put out over a long time

In simple terms this means that more energy (measured by kilojoules or calories) from food and drinks is being eaten compared to what is being used for growth, and being burned up through play and exercise. The extra energy is stored as body fat.

Surveys show that compared with the Australian Dietary Guideline recommendations, Australian kids are eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar and saturated fat1.

There isn’t enough information about the changes in the energy burned, but it seems that the energy we burn up daily has significantly decreased. Australian children are exceeding screen time guidelines (time spent watching television or playing video games) with two thirds of children exceeding the maximum limit of two hours per day3. Too much time spent on activities such as television, videos and computer games could be a major contributor to the problem. Our increased reliance on cars for transport also means both adults and children are less active.

Some people’s bodies use less energy so they are more prone to becoming overweight or obese.

Our body’s rate of energy usage is partly set by family genetics. Also, being undernourished during early infancy, or before birth can affect the way our body uses energy and increases the risk of becoming overweight or obese. However, it is known that a person’s food and activity habits have the biggest impact on body weight. Small changes in food and exercise habits can lead to major changes in body weight.

Where to from here?

To turn around the worrying trend of increasing childhood overweight and obesity will require actions at all levels of society.

Some areas suggested for change are:

  • food manufacturing and processing
  • food marketing and advertising
  • social and town planning
  • public transport and method of travel to school
  • food and physical education in schools
  • family food and physical activity environment.

What should my family do?

We all have a role to play in bucking this trend. Start by learning about healthy eating and getting active, and then encourage friends and family members to take on a healthier lifestyle.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines for Adults and Children are based on the best available research and can be used by individuals, families and other community groups to learn about healthy eating patterns.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating can help you plan the amount of foods we need to balance our energy intake.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) is a nutrition professional that can help children and adults plan a healthy diet and lifestyle.

1 National Health Survey: Summary of results, 2007-08 (re-issue), Australian Bureau of Statistics
2 Must A, Strauss RS. Risks and consequences of childhood and adolescent
obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999; 23 Suppl 2: S2-11.
3 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey ? main findings, Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO ) Preventative Health National Research Flagship, and the University of South Australia