In our part of the world, where chubby children are considered cute and healthy, parents often fret over the physical appearances of their children. There are parents who routinely feed their children burgers, fries, pizzas, pastries, etc. from the belief that these will make their children appear healthy. Unfortunately, the term, healthy, is often associated with fat or overweight; chubby children are not necessarily healthy children.
In a country, where malnutrition has always been a problem, the high economic growth of recent decades has introduced a new but starkly different kind of health concern - childhood overweight and obesity.
In the preliminary results of a nationwide study conducted by the icddr,b on obesity prevalence and physical activity among children and adolescents in urban areas of Bangladesh, it was seen that of children aged 5-18 years, 10 per cent are overweight while 4 per cent are obese. The figures are alarming, considering the size of our young population.
The research identified availability of high-calorie fast/processed food, sedentary lifestyle, better transportation facilities, less outdoor recreational space and intake of more food and beverages as result of attractive media campaigns as important factors contributing to childhood overweight and obesity in Bangladesh.
According to Obesity Prevention Source of Harvard School of Public Health, South Asian countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have low child obesity rates compare to other countries. But the large populations of these countries add up to large numbers of children who are overweight or obese.
I am used to seeing overweight and obese children here in the United States, where 18 per cent of children aged 6-11 years and a similar percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years are obese or have excess body fat. But in Bangladesh, childhood overweight and obesity is a new concern, but a grave concern nonetheless.
During my last Dhaka trip, I saw children as young as 2 years old munching potato chips and watching TV. Children aged 6-10 years are eating chocolate-covered cereals for breakfast, doughnuts for lunch at school and fast food like burgers or deep-fried drumsticks as afternoon snacks. We are happily feeding our children food that are doing them more harm than good. On weekends, these children are eating out with their families and having high-fat, high-calorie restaurant food.
Why should we be concerned?
We should be concerned because overweight and obesity in youth are responsible for many chronic diseases of the adult years. Obese children and adolescents are at higher risk for bone and joint problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, cardiovascular diseases, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and other social and psychological problems like poor self-esteem and stigmatization.
What can we do?
First of all, we should keep an eye on what we are feeding our children. Just because some of us have the money to buy high-priced (but unhealthy) fast and processed foods, we should not just feed them to our children. It certainly saves us the time and trouble of cooking but then, at what cost?
As a parent it is your responsibility to make sure that your child does enough physical activity every day. Instead of encouraging the child to watch TV or play video games at his free time, take him out for a short walk on the street, mall, a nearby park or the roof of the house. Let your child use all your apartment space, if he wants, to play hide-and-seek or whatever game that requires physical movement.
If left unchecked, childhood overweight and obesity could pose serious health and social threats in the years to come.