Increasing rates of global childhood obesity can mean bigger battles in adulthood.

Healthy kids with good health habits have a good chance of becoming healthy adults. Conversely, poor health habits early in life can be hard to break, with severe consequences down the road.

One common index of overall health is body mass index (BMI), which is a crude measure of bodyweight and therefore of overall health. However, even if the accuracy surrounding BMI is still a bit foggy, data from recent studies on childhood obesity paint a clear picture of what many youngsters worldwide will likely face in their years ahead: struggles with obesity, nutrient deficiencies and overall long-term health issues.

A new report in the medical journal The Lancet declares that by 2022 there will be more overweight than underweight children in the world. If that isn’t shocking enough, it also notes that in the past 40 years, the number of children and adolescents who are obese has increased tenfold.

So why this drastic shift and what can Canadian parents do to ensure their little ones are nutritionally sound?

Dr. Jess Haines, associate director of the Guelph Family Health Study and associate professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph, is concerned about the findings. The study emphasizes the rise in child obesity in low-and middle-income countries, but that doesn’t mean that Canada is excluded from this upward trend.

“We are in an interesting time,” says Haines. “It appears that for many Canadian children, having insufficient food is not as much of a problem as the quality of the food. More than 70% of Canadian children are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. They are also eating more nutrient-poor, calorically dense food, which can result in inadequate nutrients that are essential to the health of growing children.”

This is, in fact, a form of malnutrition, which is often associated with insufficient calories. The type of malnutrition now seen in many countries is on the opposite end of the spectrum. While eating nutrient-poor foods may be partly responsible for the global jump in BMI, factors such as low levels of physical activity and too many hours spent in front of screens suggest that the reported BMI status is indeed higher due to a shift in lifestyle and food choices.

Furthermore, the increase in screen-time among today’s chil- dren means greater exposure to food advertisements, itself a cause for concern. “Research has shown that marketing to children can influence food choice early in life,” says Haines. “Companies understand the unique brand loyalty of young children and spend a lot of money marketing to them. Most of this, unfortunately, is for unhealthy foods.”

However, Haines is hopeful. Recently, Bill F228 limited the amount of marketing of unhealthy foods to children in Canada. “I would argue for banning all food marketing towards children, as it would make it a lot easier for parents,” says Haines, who says that children can exert a lot of pressure on parents when making dietary choices. (Quebec, the prov- ince with the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country, has regulated marketing to children under 13 years of age for the past 30 years).

According to Haines, understanding early-life risk factors will help researchers understand weight gain and health outcomes in later life. Her study works with Canadian families to develop effective ways to promote healthy behaviours in children. “We hope our results will help inform policy makers and health care providers on how to support families in im- proving healthy eating habits, sleep patterns and behaviours overall in children,” she says.

More Knowledge: Here’s some great tips on staying healthy through pregnancy in this article.

Author: Sina Woerthle, MSc., is a freelance nutrition writer, health blogger and full- time research and development scientist in the vegan food industry. She enjoys the great outdoors, hiking and picnicking in the park.

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