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Trick or treat?

In some countries like the US, about one third of children are overweight or obese, and the numbers are still increasing.

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Halloween is just around the corner and with it comes kids (and some adults, too) dressing up in costumes and the prospect of candy — lots and lots of candy. While having candy once in a while shouldn’t be a problem, children who have some all the time and those who may have other unhealthy eating habits can end up with unwanted weight gain, leading them to becoming overweight or obese.

Obesity has become one of the most important public health concerns worldwide. What’s even more concerning is that it is now more commonly being seen in children and adolescents. In some countries like the US, about one third of children are overweight or obese, and the numbers are still increasing.

Children are now developing health problems once only seen in adults — high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, pre-diabetes or diabetes, fatty liver, sleep apnea and even gall bladder problems. Even if the children lose the weight, most will still continue to have weight problems as they grow up and are at risk for being overweight or obese as adults and can develop those obesity-related conditions.

Sadly, these children are at risk for developing emotional or psychological challenges as they become withdrawn and are more prone to sadness, having low self-esteem and poor body image.
Childhood obesity can be caused by a number of things — genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns or a combination of these. Rarely is obesity caused by a hormonal problem, but this should be discussed with the child’s pediatrician who can check with some blood tests.

Early childhood is a critical period when it comes to weight. Among babies and toddlers, rapid weight gain and excess weight can predispose them to becoming overweight and obese later on in life. Those chubby cheeks and legs may be cute now, but maybe not so much when they’re all grown up.

Obesity can run in the family, as children with parents and siblings who are also overweight have a tendency to gain weight as well, but this may be due more to family eating habits and patterns.

The changes in our environment also play a role. As computers and video games become increasingly popular, the number of hours of inactivity of children increases. Children should spend more time outdoors and not in front of the TV.

Snacking also tends to be a common cause for weight gain in children. The calories consumed in snacks have increased almost three-fold in the past few decades. And children also tend to snack several times throughout the day.

It is also easier to purchase pre-packaged snacks which are usually high in sugar and calories. You’ve probably heard about not going grocery shopping when you’re hungry. This means not taking the children along with you if they are hungry as well. Sweets are also placed strategically by the cash register which leads to impulse buying.

So what can be done?

Children should be routinely assessed for their weight and rate of weight gain. Early intervention is better and easier.

Teach your children the importance of a healthy lifestyle, exercise and a proper diet.

Limit total calories. One piece of candy is about 25 calories, which doesn’t seem like much. But multiply that times 10 and you’ve just had more calories than a cup of rice.

Don’t switch to sugar-free candy as a substitute. Sugar-free does not necessarily mean calorie-free. And the artificial sweetener used in these sugar-free candies such as sorbitol can cause diarrhea when you consume too much.

Candy may not even be the culprit. Children drink more sodas and juice which are also packed with calories that can quickly add up. Other snacks can also be laden with sugar. Sugar should only make up 10 percent of the calories consumed in a day.

So monitor how much Halloween candy your child consumes this week. If you’re doling out the candy, maybe give out one or two pieces less, or consider giving out a healthier treat. And walk with your children to a few more stops on their Halloween route to get some physical activity in.

One of the best strategies is to improve the eating and exercise habits for the whole family, not just for the kids, because they learn by what they see. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect your child’s health now and in the future.

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