New Zealand is facing a growing problem. Obesity rates are on the rise and the country is ranked as the third most obese nation in the world.
What is worse, many of those affected are youth, with one in nine children now being classed as obese and a further one in four considered overweight.
Obesity can lead to a number of life shortening conditions as we age, such as heart disease and diabetes (to which the Indian community is particularly prone), as well as various gastrointestinal cancers.
A number of factors are contributing to this trend.
Increasing number of fast food outlets, a sharp rise in consumption of processed foods, and lack of exercise are affecting the health of the younger generation.
The tragedy about youth obesity is that it is always the fault of the youngsters. Overprotection and forced feeding by parents (for example the need to ‘finish everything on the plate’ and not waste food), as well as false traditional beliefs about health and nutrition among parents and caregivers also contribute to obesity.
Habit formation is crucial in children, and bad habit formation in relation to diet and exercise from a young age will do more harm later in their lives.
Health effects are not noticed when the child is young because the young body is able to cope and is more active. But bad eating habits continue into adulthood, adding to health complications.
As a guide, a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) for Indian men and women is between 18.5 and 23. For a person who is 180 cms tall, the ideal weight is between 60 kgs and 75 kgs. Above this, the risk for heart disease and diabetes increases significantly.
The recommended BMI for people of Indian origin is lower than other ethnicities because the risk association with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases occurs at lower levels of the Index.
This is attributed to body fat distribution; Asian Indians tend to have more visceral fat (fat within the abdominal cavity), which affects hormones more than subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin), causing higher insulin resistance, and greater diabetes risk.
One approach to tackle this problem is to encourage our young people to engage in exercise, either at home, in school or in the community.
Current guidelines recommend that children (5-18 years) should be doing at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise per day, but research shows that only 10% of school students work out every day.
As a parent/caregiver, please encourage your children to participate in community fitness programmes (like Arogya Mantra), health walks like Round the Bays, or extra-curricular sporting activities to help them meet the daily 60 minutes of exercise target. Safe walk/bicycle routes to school are a great way to exercise each day.
In terms of diet, make sure your children know what foods are healthy and what they should be eating, especially if they are choosing their own lunches from school cafeterias or lunch shops.
Processed foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar should be minimised, while a variety from the four food groups of vegetables, fruits, breads and cereals, milk, milk products, lean meat, seafood, eggs, legumes and nuts could be on the daily diet.
Vegetarians in particular need plenty of iron such as wholegrain cereals, legumes, dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables.
Vegans can get protein from foods such as tofu and legumes. They can also take drink soy milk that has added calcium and vitamin B12.
Jignal Bagvandas is Director of ‘Arogya Mantra,’ an organisation that promotes healthy living through healthy habits and exercises. She is based in Auckland.