We all want our kids to grow up to healthy and well, and Kings College London have now highlighted six important modifiable factors that a child can be exposed to during pregnancy and the first three years of life, which are predictors for child obesity.
If they can be modified, the theory goes that childhood obesity can be reduced or prevented, which is incredibly exciting.
New figures show that around a quarter of reception-age youngsters in primary school are overweight or obese, and this increases to over a third when they leave primary school at age eleven. So more awareness and intervention is needed, to help prevent this escalating.
A child’s body weight and body mass index (BMI) when young is also associated with how a child develops both physically and mentally, and it is now known that a child who is overweight or obese is more likely to develop a whole host of developmental and health complications spanning from behavioural and attention issues, asthma and fatty liver disease to later down the line type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular illness.
This study carried out by Dr Kathryn Dalrymple, a postdoctoral researcher based at St Thomas’s hospital has recently been published.
The team identified six main risk factors that are associated with a child becoming overweight or obese, and it seems that the more of these that a child racks up in the early years, the more they may be predisposed to greater weight gain and associated health problems later down the line. This was a study of 495 children tracked from pregnancy to the age of three from mostly lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The six factors that can potentially contribute to a young child gaining excess weight in their formative years include:
- The mother having a high BMI during early pregnancy. A mum to be starting off pregnancy being overweight can mean that the baby will also gain excess weight by the time they start at school. This means that part of getting ready for pregnancy could mean losing some weight and reducing the BMI.
- Excess weight gain for the mum during pregnancy. Some women naturally put on a great deal of weight when they are pregnant, but others see pregnancy as a chance to eat for two or more. Getting a fine balance between eating enough to nourish you and your baby and not gaining weight can be quite tricky. Cake is ok sometimes but not something to gorge on every day.
- Bottle-feeding right from the start. This measure for the study was simply splitting the babies at hospital discharge between exclusively breastfed, exclusively formula fed or mixed fed. Those babies that left hospital drinking formula are the ones that are more likely to put on a little too much weight as a baby and later on in life.
- A child’s eating habits (measured by food responsiveness). Parental and environmental pressures can lead to habits that lead to excess weight gain.
- A child who eats too fast. If they gobble down their food this may mean they eat a bit too much and this can cumulate leading to excess weight gain over time.
- Young babies and children who eat more highly processed convenience foods and snack more often gain more weight. Most of the food we buy in the supermarkets these days is convenience food rich in refined starchy carbohydrate and this type of food can be much less satiating than a home cooked well balanced meal containing a balance of carbohydrate, protein, fat and vegetables. Baby rice and porridge, fruity pouches and snacks like rice cakes and crunchy puffed corn are almost entirely refined white starchy carbs and are not naturally well balanced with the rest of the good stuff. When a child does not eat a balanced plate at a meal (including breakfast) this can mean that they are less satiated and are more likely to graze on the less healthy snacks during the day.
So, what measures can you take to help prevent this from happening? Here are my seven key mantras that form the foundations of my two cookbooks The Good Stuff and I Can’t Believe It’s Baby Food, for raising a child with a healthy metabolism. Start these prior to pregnancy and do your best to maintain this during pregnancy and when feeding your baby:
- Cook from scratch as much as possible. This includes breakfast, so swap the cereal for home made porridge or scrambled egg on wholemeal or rye bread. Make your own breakfast muffins, pancakes and waffles which means you can pack in eggs, milk, yoghurt, nut butters, ground seeds and even grated vegetables and fruit.
- Keep within the NHS guidelines for sugar intake and cut back on ingredients with a high glycaemic value such as white ﬂour and refined starches which can give you and your child an even bigger sugar spike than table sugar. Use fruit and the occasional dash of honey (babies over 12 months only) and maple syrup if they are craving a touch of sweetness.
- 5 types of fruits and veg a day should be a bare minimum. I understand that this is one of the hardest challenges for parents. But even if you or your little one are champion veg dodgers, I’ll show you how to ensure they get the nutrients they need by hiding veg in smoothies, ice lollies, sauces, pancakes and waffles, until they grow out of fussy eating and start enjoying their greens.
- Aim for a balanced plate. Whether this is a meal or a snack you are looking to pack in the protein, healthy fat and vegetables, as well as the carbohydrate every single time. For snacks pair fruit with chunks of cheddar, seeded oatcakes with hummus, bread sticks with cream cheese if you are in a rush. Or if you have more time look at making your own snacks such as muffins or cookies stuffed with fruit and grated veg and protein if you have more time.
- Adopt a wholefood diet, so the goodness hasn’t been stripped from its original form. Choose wholegrain brown rice, pasta and bread over the white versions a few times a week for variety. Add in pulses, nut butters and ground seeds to provide more fibre.
- Full-fat dairy and eggs are back on the menu. It has now been shown that consuming full-fat dairy products is actually associated with reduced risk of a child becoming overweight or obese and suﬀering from cardiovascular problems. A pregnant mum can also consume whole Greek yoghurt, cheese and blue top milk.
- Make the food super-delicious and mealtimes fun, eating together as much as possible. This is perhaps the most critical point of all, since pleasure and taste are such important factors in developing a healthy relationship with food. If you manage to eat home-cooked food with good-quality ingredients 80% of the time, you’re oﬀ to a great start.