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Fat? Not my child!

Parents fail to objectively evaluate their children’s weight, and believe that they behave better at mealtimes than they actually do. The result? Childhood obesity is on the increase.

The child is overweight, but the parents do not notice. This is confirmed by numerous studies which have been carried out over the past 15 years, the last of which, released at the end of 2015 in the British Journal of General Practice, is based on nearly 3000 questionnaires distributed to school infirmaries in Britain. Objective data collected by professionals (weight, height and body mass index) on two groups of children (some aged 4-5 years, others 10-11 years) was compared with the assessment that the parents gave of their own children's weight on a qualitative scale (underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese). The result shows that in extreme situations (children who were either underweight or distinctly obese) parents underestimated the seriousness of the situation. A snapshot of the paradoxical situation of our world today: there is a growing number of people who eat too little, and yet we are witnessing a growth in cases of overweight and obese people, linked to excessive consumption of food, or the wrong types of food being eaten.

 False beliefs
The inability to estimate correctly the weight of our own children is a common finding: this has been confirmed by surveys carried out in Italy, France, Brazil and even in some African countries, such as Kenya, where we are beginning to see the emergence of childhood obesity, despite the shortage of food. This is especially true in larger cities where people tend to eat little, but badly.
In this context, all Western countries show an exponential growth in cases of overweight or obese children. According to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2012, there are 170 million overweight or obese school-age children worldwide.
 The highest prevalence of overweight children is in upper-middle income countries, and when considered as a group, low income countries have the lowest prevalence rate. However, overweight is increasing in almost all countries, and the fastest growing prevalence rates are in low and middle income countries.
And yet, according to a survey involving over 15,000 mothers, carried out in Italy by Laura De Gara (President of the degree course in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome), nine out of ten mothers are convinced that they are providing their family with healthy, nutritious food. The figures, conversely, indicate that 21 percent of children are overweight, and 9 percent are obese.
 When questioned about the key principles of good nutrition, most of the interviewees responded correctly, while a more in-depth analysis revealed that in practice these rules of prevention were not being applied. The Italian data is consistent with similar research conducted by, among others, the European Pediatrics Society and the United States Department of Agriculture, which promotes the ChooseMyPlate campaign.
So, it would appear that in developed countries there is a clear discrepancy between theoretical knowledge and good practices; this, together with the inability to estimate correctly the ideal weight of children, is causing the obesity epidemic that we see today.

 We learn from a young age
“On the one hand we know that childhood obesity is a serious risk factor for obesity in adulthood. On the other, and from a more general perspective, lifestyles and behaviours that are acquired during the formative years – such as food preferences, the composition of one’s diet, the distribution of food intake throughout the day, portion sizes, food consumption methods, in addition to adopting either an active or sedentary lifestyle – can contribute to producing good or poor eating behaviours in adulthood, due to a ‘memory effect’ linked to acquired habits”, as explained by experts from the BCFN foundation, in the book ‘Eating Planet’.
 It is therefore essential to make sure that good eating behaviours - in terms of healthy daily eating habits and lifestyles - are put in place from early childhood. Preventative measures may have little or no effect on some of the underlying factors that cause overweight and obesity, as they are related to genetic factors; however, others can be effectively counteracted with good nutrition and exercise. But in order for these measures to be long-lasting, they must begin in the earliest stages of life.
 This is why every parent who believes that they are aware of these measures - and that they are putting them into practice - should pay closer attention to the example that they are setting for their children, and monitor the content of food that they serve. In addition to this, parents should use objective methods for keeping track of their children’s weight, with the help of a paediatrician if necessary.
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