Southern European countries have the highest prevalence of childhood obesity in the region. Obesity in children is associated with a greater cardiovascular and metabolic risk. In this article, we provide some practical food guidelines for the healthy growth of our children.
Southern European countries (especially Italy, Spain and Malta) have the highest prevalence of childhood obesity in the region. Paradoxically, population studies have associated this result with low adherence to the Mediterranean diet. These children follow a diet characterized by a low intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes and fish. Breakfast is often absent or full of junk food and the mid-morning snack is often excessive in terms of calories. This situation is further aggravated by the lack of physical activity carried out by children in favor of the time spent in sedentary activities in front of TV, PC and other digital devices.
We offer below some useful information to improve the health of our children:
- Replace part of the foods of animal origin with those of vegetable origin, thus improving the composition of the diet both in terms of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins and antioxidants), in addition to increasing the amount of fiber ingested and reducing energy intake.
- Have a healthy and complete breakfast. It should cover 15-20% of daily energy needs. A balanced breakfast has been associated with an increase in attention and memory and improved performance and school learning. The preferred foods are cereals, better if whole grains, milk or yogurt and fruit. Abolish the snacks and baked goods, densely caloric and low in nutrients, which also limit the sense of satiety to a few hours.
- Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks should provide a calorie intake equal to 5-10% of daily energy. Limit saturated fats and animal proteins and prefer complex carbohydrates and vegetable sources. Use fruits, fruit and milk smoothie, yogurt, a slice of bread with jam or with tomato and oil.
- Vary foods, especially fruit and vegetables. This will allow the child to have a complete supply of nutrients and not to “get bored” by eating the same things. Do not offer only the foods that have shown the most success, thus giving up on those rejected. Vegetables give the opportunity to play with flavors but also with colors, creating various compositions so as to obtain visually inviting dishes. Make foods with a more bitter taste (such as chicory, radicchio, artichokes) more palatable by combining them with sweeter ones (pumpkin and carrot). It is very important to follow their seasonality.
- Involve the child in all stages, from shopping to preparing dishes. Involvement will improve his relationship with food.
- Do not use food as a reward or as a “happy island” in moments of sadness. Creating a strong emotional connection with food could prove to be a problem in the psychologically more difficult moments that the child will face in the future. The response to strong emotions could become an excessive consumption of food or a total rejection of it.
- The eating habits of all family members act as a model for the child. A family environment that follows the recommendations of healthy eating and a correct lifestyle will radically influence the idea of what is healthy and what is not in the child.
- The social context greatly conditions the child’s relationship with food. Critical comments about overweight or obese people, particularly restrictive eating habits and the idea of social models of thinness for aesthetic purposes can increase the risk of future eating disorders.
- Stimulate the child to carry out at least 1 hour a day of moderate / vigorous physical activity (walking, running). Plan a sport activity at least three times a week, choosing the one that most pleases the child, by attitude or following his/her friends.
Given the prevalence of childhood obesity, the need for a change of direction emerges. Overweight children will most likely be overweight adults. Demographic studies have shown that obesity in children is associated with both immediate and long-term increased cardiovascular and metabolic risk, compromising the quality of life of our children. Educating them to a healthy lifestyle will greatly increase the likelihood of having healthy and active adults. The best gift a parent can give to their child.