How to prevent childhood obesity
Experts warn of the seriousness of childhood obesity, which reduces the quality of life and shortens life expectancy in young people. In order to improve the situation, it is essential to train the youngest in food and physical activity habits.
Human beings are like any other organism: they are designed to consume a precise quantity of resources in order to generate energy. Put another way, if they exceed a limit and do not burn it, they become saturated. That is why life habits related to physical inactivity, which is characteristic of the developed societies of the 21st Century, are giving way to an obesity epidemic that the authorities do not know how to tackle.
More than half of adult Spaniards are overweight, although the data that is really worrying is about children and adolescents: 23% are overweight and 18% are obese. These figures put Spain among the European leaders in childhood obesity.
What are the causes of this situation? Experts agree that there are several factors at play, although the weightiest of these is the lack of healthy food. Ascensión Marcos, an expert in immunonutrition from the Food Science and Technology and Nutrition Institute at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CSIC), expresses her concern: “We have not managed to ensure that children eat well, nor that they eat what we constantly recommend: fruit, vegetables, pulses, cereals...”.
For her, the problem is related to “the lack of correct habits, given that there is no nutritional education in our country. This is the first thing that should be insisted upon and put into place”. She adds that the amounts that young people eat are excessive: “They are used to eating to excess, they gorge, and furthermore they do practically no exercise”.
The situation that Marcos describes is replicated in medical consultations. Teresa Cenarro, president of the Aragonese Association of Primary Care Paediatrics and a member of the Gastro-Nutrition Group of the Spanish Association of Primary Care Paediatrics, explains what she habitually comes across in her work: “Parents consult us, worried, about what to do about the problem, but dealing with and managing the situation is quite complicated”.
For Cenarro, one of the main problems is the lack of time to go shopping and cook, which leads families to resort to pre-prepared ready meals that are “much less healthy”. Moreover, she calls our attention to the “abuse of liquid foods, such as juices, yoghurts and milkshakes, which represent a huge ingestion of calories without any feeling of fullness”.
Cenarro adds to this the lack of physical activity. “Leisure time has changed. Before, children would go to the park, out into the fresh air, to play. Now, screens take up a significant amount of their time, and being with a screen implies not doing exercise”, she laments. In fact, in spite of the recommendation for young people being to do at least 60 minutes per day of exercise, not even 50% of the population of children and young people is meeting this requirement.
Furthermore, there is another factor to take into account: sleep time. “We must be aware of how important it is, in quality and quantity, given that it has an impact on inflammation processes, and obesity is a low grade inflammation that is accentuated as the years pass, giving way to conditions that are extremely high risk for health”, including neurodegenerative illnesses and cancer, warns Marcos.
Dangers of obesity
The consequences of childhood obesity are very dangerous, with an extensive list of associated pathologies. “It is an illness that is classed as chronic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a situation of overburdening that affects nearly all of the body’s organs and systems”, explains Julio Álvarez Pitti, researcher for the Spanish Society for the Study of Obesity and the Biomedical Physiopathology Research Centre for Obesity and Nutrition.
Around 15% of obese children suffer from high blood pressure and a change in their lipids, as well as suffering changes in their hormone creation system, giving rise to illnesses such as diabetes.
Moreover, obesity can cause fats to accumulate in the liver, which can lead to the appearance of cirrhosis in future. The respiratory system is also put at risk. “Fat surrounds the lungs and can lead to patients breathing worse. What’s more, this phenomenon has been linked to both asthma and sleep apnoea”, indicates Álvarez Pitti.
The researcher also points out that the musculoskeletal system (overburdened bones and joints) and the cardio-respiratory function, which has a direct impact on physical performance, are also affected. However, the most frightening effect of childhood obesity happens in the long term: “It can reduce life expectancy by between 10 and 15 years. Furthermore, it means that the quality of that life will be dire, because obesity leads to accelerated ageing”.
The importance of education
All the experts that we consulted for this report affirm that Spain is facing a serious crisis because of this chronic paediatric condition. “If we don’t do something to tackle it, the future involves adults who are overweight and obese, with all its consequences”, predicts Cenarro, who is calling for “investment in prevention” especially in terms of food.
This work needs to be done particularly in schools, according to all the experts. “It is very important to educate in food and physical activity habits. It could be included in a subject and the number of hours of physical education should be increased. What’s more, food in school canteens should be balanced, respecting the recommendations that come from the world of health”, observes Álvarez Pitti.
A national strategy to tackle the problem seems to be imperative, and teachers and schools must play a fundamental part in it. However, this measure should not only target children, but also families and society at large. “This is partly happening because parents aren’t eating well either”, says Ascensión Marcos, who adds: “Initiatives also need to be aimed at families and at society as a whole”.
Social awareness-raising also needs to happen in medical consultations, particularly in Paediatrics, in Cenarro’s opinion: “Families need to mentally prepare themselves. I try this with parents, who I ask to avoid sugars, fats and salts. We teach them to read and check labels, something which they don’t have to do with a lettuce because it is healthy and natural. This is as compared to ready meals, with which you need to stop yourself a little to choose which are the least detrimental”.
Cenarro is calling for us to return to “grandmother’s cooking” and to choose tradition, rather than new industrial products: “It is better to eat a classic sandwich than a packet of biscuits”.
Decisions should also be made about the amounts that young people eat. Marcos points to a change of habits in all activities: “We must leave behind this American custom of eating to excess at any time of day, including ultra-processed products and enormous drinks. For example, in cinemas you find that the sizes of popcorn and drinks are extraordinary. That should be regulated”.
In the same way, they do not rule out legislative measures by the government. Cenarro believes that “although it is very difficult, the most harmful foods, such as industrial baked goods, should be forbidden from having attention-grabbing packaging, with fashionable people or gifts. The industry relies on this attraction so that children ask for certain products and buy them. Legislation needs to be strengthened in this respect”. She is also of the opinion that vending machines in schools should only contain products that are not harmful.
The route to be followed is also marked by measures like the plan agreed by the Ministry of Health and the food industry to improve the composition of foodstuffs and drinks by 2020, with the aim of reducing the salt, sugar and fat content in more than 3,500 products.
This initiative has received unanimous approval from experts in health and nutrition, who believe that we are still in time to reverse the situation and ensure that the future of Spain does not end up being weighed down by an obese, and therefore ill, population.
Recommendations so that children do not become obese
- Cut out ready meals and ultra-processed foods.
- Ensure that home-cooked food is at the centre of the family diet, with vegetables, pulses, cereals and fruit playing a key role.
- Avoid industrial milkshakes, yoghurts and fruit juices.
- Keep sugars, fats and salts at bay, especially those which are added artificially to foods.
- Make a thorough check on the labelling of foods that you are going to give to your children.
- Children should take 60 minutes per day of exercise, as a minimum. It is necessary to promote playing in the park and getting away from consoles and touch screens.
- Sleep for between 10 and 12 hours per day.
By David Monzón