World Obesity Day: Guiding Egyptian Schoolchildren to Healthy Habits
“Severe diets are completely wrong for children, it makes them feel deprived, and makes them feel that they have no willpower. It also creates a negative relationship with food,” says Mireille Medhat, Child Nutrition Specialist and Founder of ‘Beet It’.
“Tying weight loss with body image is also wrong. For children to develop a healthy self image, your conversation with them should always be about being healthy, not looking better.”
Seeing parents force their children to diet and talk negatively to them about their weight, Medhat realized that parents are often misinformed, and so they tend to handle obesity in the wrong way.
Founded in 2018, Beet It is an Instagram account which aims to raise a healthy generation and “beat” childhood obesity by raising awareness. Their services include tailored meal plans and coaching sessions for parents and children, variable according to the children’s age.
On the occasion of World Obesity Day, on March 4, Egyptian Streets is shedding light on the prevalence of obesity among Egyptian schoolchildren, and ways to tackle it.
Parents wonder why their children are obese without considering genetics, unhealthy habits at home, and keeping sugary or fatty foods accessible. It is common practice that parents force their children to start dieting, or reduce their food portions as soon as they notice that their weight is beginning to increase, without addressing the main reason behind the problem.
Medhat, who has been specializing in pediatric nutrition since 2018, strongly believes in the importance of spreading awareness, whether in schools, sports clubs, or other places children frequent.
Obesity in children is measured by using Body Mass Index for age (BMI-for-age), which calculates the child’s weight category based on his or her age and BMI.
Among other health problems, Egypt ranks seventh in the world in terms of child obesity, with 32 percent of its child population suffering from the condition. Governmental campaigns have been launched in the last few years, as part of ‘100 million seha’ initiative, underscoring common health conditions, including obesity. Yet, none have specifically targeted this fragile demographic. Unfortunately, obesity among children is one of the less-talked about subjects, whether in Egypt or across the globe.
“Knowledge is power in the case of nutrition. A lot of people want to have healthier habits, but they don’t know where to start, and they don’t have the right information,” Medhat tells Egyptian Streets. “They think that losing weight means that they have to eat horrible food, or that healthy people are superheroes who have amazing willpower, and that is not true,” she adds.
Medhat highlights that coaching parents is her main tool in children’s weight loss journeys. Whether it is over-eating, over-restricting, or a generally unsupportive environment, parents occasionally ask their children to follow habits that they themselves cannot follow.
“Sometimes parents over-eat, or eat the wrong food, and because their child is slightly overweight, they try to restrict them from having the same food,” she explains.
Although genetics and hormones are major contributors to obesity, Medhat considers a sedentary lifestyle, playing outdoors less often, and eating fast food, as key factors that contribute to widespread obesity among Egyptian schoolchildren.
Medhat further points out that another mistake that parents fall prey to is rewarding their children with unhealthy food, making more wholesome and nutritious food look less appealing or exciting, and further affecting children’s relationship with eating.
“It isn’t wrong to change habits; it is wrong to focus on weight loss or tell the child that they need to lose weight. What we can do is develop the right environment, and the right habits to help them lose weight,” continues Medhat.
She advises parents to be creative with their recipes, prepare home-cooked snacks and desserts that are healthy, and involve the whole family in healthier habits. She also encourages preparing meals as a family activity every once in a while, in addition to regularly walking or maintaining physical activity as part of the family’s daily routine.
Published in 2017, a study done by the Menoufia Medical Journal, found that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The study, which was conducted over a sample of primary schoolchildren (6 to 12 years old) in Menoufia, recommends increasing awareness about obesity, as well as ways and means of prevention.
“It is impossible to ask the kids for something that the parents are not doing, so the entire family has to change their habits,” concludes Medhat.
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