Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Child's food or how not to become obese

As parents, the learning curve is steep and it doesn't stop when you think you may start to have it sussed out, like 4 years in or something like that. Recently, food has been very much on the agenda, and three very different trains of thought seem to be converging.

There is an interesting contradiction in the whole business of feeding children. If you're a breastfeeding mum, all your parents' eyes are on weight gain and you are damning yourself (even if health professionals don't) if it doesn't follow a chart. Oh the worry I had with Cubling. So much so, that once we started solids, I made sure it was a very high calorie version and she went from skinny to very chubby in just 3 months.

Then there's the whole debate of increasing levels of childhood obesity, so much so that a recent topic on Call Kaye was a debate on whether gastric band operations should be offered to children as young as 14. An interesting point was made by a caller who deplored that weight gain in children was no longer checked regularly, so that obesity is often caught when severely bad eating habits are very strongly established and exercise is becoming less of an option to tackle the surplus energy the body is given.

There are many reasons for childhood obesity, and while some are known (we all know what foods are good and which ones aren't, don't we?), some others are more elusive.

Reason 1: This is one that I only found out about recently, due to taking part in the Optigrow Infant Feeding Study. Apparently, baby's metabolism is set in the first 10 days of life. If fed on formula, the risk of later obesity is much higher than if fed on breast milk. What annoys me is that nobody ever informed me about this. All the breastfeeding information I got from the NHS was summarised into benefits, which were all nice but not very convincing.

When you decide which way you would like to feed your baby, it's presented as a choice where you weigh up pros and cons. The thing is though that many reasons to breastfeed are not really explained in detail. I usually don't trust reasons that don't give me an explanation. The "why" is important to me and convinces me. I'm still finding out more about the benefits of breastfeeding, and realise more and more that there are two reasons why people do not breastfeed: New mothers often don't know enough about the benefits and make an uninformed choice, or they do not get enough support. Then there's the group who does get all the information and support and makes an informed choice - which is fine. It's just a shame if breastfeeding isn't happening for lack of information and/or support.

Now there's a new "urge" to breastfeed to reduce levels of obesity, which have long term health impact and also cost the NHS money. Low breastfeeding rates translate to health inequalities in later life. In principle, this is all good and well, surely there's room for higher levels of breastfeeding (in some parts of Glasgow less than 10% of mothers breastfeed at the 6-8 week appointment) - but it takes more than an "urge". I saw a request on Netmums for a young mum to be for baby stuff, including bottles. I responded and offered a few things (including bottles) but also said that breastfeeding would be cheaper. The response by the friend was, oh she's only 17, she doesn't have a clue. I understand that, I didn't have a clue really at more than twice the age and the NHS breastfeeding workshop at 38 weeks of pregnancy was much too late to really have an impact on feeding choices (and the support to tackle my breastfeeding problems was well meaning but didn't actually improve things). I just feel that nobody should feel they don't have a clue about what should be the normal way to feed a baby, and I'm still mad that even with all the information I did get, I didn't know enough when I first became a mum.

Then there's the issue that breastfeeding support workers and initiatives are getting their funding cut. Urging to breastfeed without the support is simply not enough. I won't happen. Without the support I had, I would have given in after 2 weeks. I didn't have great support, but it kept me going at least. Cut that, and your breastfeeding rates will plummet.

Reason 2: There is an ever growing availability of unhealthy and cheap fast food, particularly in the poorer areas. When I started weaning, everyone told me that making your own baby food was way cheaper than jars. I still doubt that. I also doubt that I can make a dinner for the price of a ready made meal. Convenience food, unhealthy snacks, fast food, are all over the place, ever in your face and it's hard to say "no" even if you are health conscious. My suggestion to tackle the problem: tax the nasty ingredients. There is currently no tax on sugar, making sugary foods very cheap. The only thing that keeps me from buying yet another chocolate bar (and eating it within seconds) is price. I know I wouldn't buy it if it doubled in price. Same goes for ready made meals and the like.

Reason 3: People have lost the skill to cook. When I was a child, my mother cooked most things from scratch. I was fortunate to learn some skills from her, though I didn't show much of an interest and could have learned so much more. Later I learned from my au pair families and thanks to a great hall of residence where we cooked together occasionally. Yet still I'm not particularly confident that I can cook from scratch. Which is why I'm all in favour of basic cooking skills being taught at school - not as an elective subject but for everyone. Because really, what better life skill can there be than being able to feed yourself?

Reason 4: And this is where I got caught in the act: Creating negative food associations. Call it the battle of the dinner table. For months, nay, years, we've been battling at dinner time. Cubling takes forever to eat, and only threats or promises of desert will make her finish her dinner. This is with food she likes and with food she doesn't. She's not a particularly fussy eater (apart from refusing to eat fruit), she just won't feed herself. We've tried it all. Or have we? I once read that the principle of feeding kids should be that the parent controls WHAT comes on the plate, and the child controls HOW MUCH they eat. On Call Kaye it was pointed out that children don't actually overeat on decent food, they only do so if sweat/fatty food is offered and also if the parents insist on the child finishing the plate. Oh I'm so guilty of the latter. I hate wasting food. I still have that growth chart worry from her breastfeeding days. The comment also firmly put me into Cubling's shoes: How did I feel when coerced into eating food? I had to finish my plate too, made to eat meat, and what good did it do? I'm an overweight, chocoholic vegetarian now! How did it happen that I just copied the food politics that I hated when I was a child?

By age 4 apparently, bad food habits are created. But we can change, can't we, after all, she's only just 4. So it's back to basics: I offer, she eats or leaves. All without coercion, with calm and fun. Hopefully we can still patch the bad start, and do it all so much better with Snowflake...

How about you? Is your dinner table a battlefield?
And what do you think is the best way to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity?

(Brownie Point if you spot the movie reference in the title ;) )

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