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Column originally published Sep 30, 2008

Healthy Eating And Physical Activity Can Reduce Obesity

Question: Our ten-year-old son is quite obese. In the last few years, our family doctor has told us that he is gaining weight much faster than normal. We have tried what we could, but because of our busy schedule, we have to go to fast food restaurants several times a week. At home, I sometimes have no time to cook, and just heat up some pizza pockets for supper before heading out for their extracurricular activities. Tell you the truth, all of us are overweight or obese. I know we are not healthy, but I don’t seem to be able to make any meaningful change. Please give us some advice.


I am glad that your doctor has raised the concern about your son’s weight. Overweight and obese children often become obese adults. They can develop all the complications of obesity at a young age, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Being overweight and obese has become a serious health problem in many parts of the world. The cause of this problem is complex, and there is no simple solution either. Every family has to look at their situation and come up with their own answer. It is a problem that has taken years to develop, and it won’t improve overnight.

All through human history until the last one to two centuries, food supply was unpredictable and often scarce. As a result, the human body is very efficient in storing nutrients when food is available. Almost everyone had to do physical labour: to plant and to grow food, to hunt and to gather. Much of the day, energy is spent on getting enough food to eat. This has actually kept the body lean and healthy.

The industrial revolution changed this forever when machines were invented to do the work that human used to labour. Instead of working every day, many have jobs that are five days a week, and many fewer hours every day. There is more time for leisure activities. Instead of walking for miles to find water, it is piped to the tap at home.

When cars become affordable for many families, fewer people have to walk to markets or to work. Many modern jobs involve sitting in front of computers. We have become a sedentary society. Instead of spending much of the time in physical activities related to work and finding food, many of us hardly have to move, and our stomach is full.

Children nowadays are at an even greater disadvantage. Most of them don’t walk to school anymore: they go on the school bus or get dropped off by the parents. They have fewer physical education classes. After school, many spend hours in front of TVs, smartphones, tablets, or computers.

Our food has also changed drastically in the last few decades. Instead of preparing food from scratch, many busy families, especially when both parents work outside of the home, rely on processed foods that can be heated and served quickly. Many of these are packed with calories. We have a whole generation of young people thinking that chickens come in a box only.

Fast food restaurants are present everywhere, in large and small communities. Most of the food they serve have high calories. When parents and children are busy, the easy choice is to eat there or buy take outs, and the price is often reasonable. Of course the food tastes good. Many of the national chains advertise heavily in children’s TV programs.

Your family is like many average Canadian families: everyone is busy, there is no time for a decent family meal. Many families believe that the best activities are organized sports. It is true that organized sports are mostly good and can help children develop both physically and emotionally. However, they become too busy because of the sports schedule, and have no time for family meals and healthy family interaction, including free-play activities. Children are not playing outside as much as the previous generation. They are either busy in sports or sitting inside watching TV or playing computer games.

Since you recognize that your family is depending too much on fast food and processed food, and you have a hectic schedule, the logical thing to do is to look at this schedule and make some changes. It may be necessary for you and your children to prioritize which activities are the important ones, and eliminate a few to free up some time, to shop for healthy groceries and to cook family meals. I have once heard another paediatrician advising her patients: the best way to prevent obesity is not to buy any food that comes in a box. Cooking from ingredients and using more vegetables would be a good start. Reducing carbohydrates (like cereals, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc) and fried foods can reduce calorie intake. Traditional desserts are also high in calorie; consider fruits as alternative for desserts.

One important thing to emphasize to young people is not to diet. Skipping meals is unhealthy and can make a person very hungry and eat even more. We don’t advice any diet that replaces proper meals: they may not have the proper nutrition for a growing child. You may want to consult a dietitian to get more advice on dietary changes.

In addition to reducing calorie intake, it is also important to increase physical activities. Children are spending too much time in front of TVs and other screens. We call these screen times. It is important to reduce them to no more than 1-2 hours a day. Children should be involved in free-play outside: running, biking, skipping, all sorts of activities that cost very little. On stormy days, some parents encourage their children to stay active by exercising on a stationary bicycle or treadmill while watching TV. The important idea is to stay active.

When children are active, they will burn off more calories. When they eat home-cooked meals, they consume more healthy nutrients with fewer calories. By doing both, you have a much better chance of success. It is not so much how many pounds or kilograms that they lose. Because they are still growing, if they can slow down their weight gain or lose a little, they will naturally become more slim and more healthy when they grow taller.

I hope you feel that the advice that I have given here is helpful for your whole family. You need to do it now, their future health is at stake.