[ By Terry Saw ]
According to the US National Library of Medicine, early eating habits and influences play a pivotal role in children’s long-term eating behaviors and attitudes. Much of what a child is exposed to in terms of nutrition and decisions surrounding food choices and the accessibility to certain food groups from their infancy days, they will most likely, in one way or another, take with them into their adolescent stages.
Which is why this week, we ask Dietician, Mohd Fatahudin Ishak from Tunku Azizah Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, for some actionable advice and sound guidance for parents on the importance of creating sustainable and healthy eating habits, and interventions where necessary – especially at a time when most parents are practicing Working From Home more than usual.
Reality Check: Can You Start Off By Sharing Some Of The More Common Health Problems Faced By Young Or Growing Children In Our Society At Present?
Mohd Fatahudin Ishak: “In Malaysia, we are at the edge of these two extremities; it is either young and growing children are under-nourished or over-nourished.
“The Malaysian National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 revealed that 29.8% of children 5 to 17 years of age are overweight (15.0%) and obese (14.8%).
“On the other hand, the growth of 21.8% of children under 5 years of age is stunted. This shows quite a drastic increase from 2011 (16.6%) and 2015 (17.7%).
“Hence, most of the cases that have been referred to us as an outpatient are either failure-to-thrive or obesity with or without underlying diseases such as bronchial asthma, heart problems, autistic spectrum disorders and others.”
Reality Check: How Has The Pandemic Impacted The Cases You’ve Seen In Your Clinic In The Past Year? And With More Parents Able To Work From Home Now, What Are Some Key Guidance You Can Share On Interventions Or Cultivating Good Eating Habits And Lifestyle Practices?
Mohd Fatahudin Ishak: “This truly is the reality that we face at this moment – a ‘new norm’ to be specific. We have been largely home-bound since last year, and now, going out can still mean increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Undeniably, every child or teenager’s lifestyle and habits faced a drastic 180-degree change in the past year.
“Some of the more common issues we’ve seen include the disruption of sleeping patterns – young children and teenagers staying up much later (and waking up later) than before. Also, there has been a spike in the amount of time spent with gadgets thus increasing their screen time. This results in a lot less physical and outdoor activity time, not to mention also impacting their eating habits along the way.
“The positive side of this pandemic is that parents can really use this time to closely monitor and manage their children’s eating habits and daily dietary intake, hence, it is especially beneficial for those who are facing failure-to-thrive.
“However, on the other end of the spectrum, a child or teenager who suffers from obesity is at an even higher risk of gaining even more weight as a result of a sedentary lifestyle and uncontrolled food intake with extended periods of time at home. It is the crucial role of a parent to intervene and take full responsibility to control their child’s activities at home.
“It is important that parents realize the importance of how controlling their children’s food intake, limiting their gadgets usage and promoting more creative physical activities at home can offer great benefits to child’s long-term health.
“If a child came to our clinic with the issue of increasing weight (despite already struggling with obesity to start with), the parents are really the ones who need to be held accountable because good habits must start at home. That and the co-operation from both parent and child are equally needed in order to curb problems, especially when they are related to unhealthy eating patterns and habits.”
Reality Check: What Are Some Important Yet Actionable Steps Parents Can Immediately Take – Especially Those With More Flexibility To Work From Home These Days?
Mohd Fatahudin Ishak: “The pandemic has in a way contained us and as a result, we are now spending more time at home, and this can at times, make it too easy for families to fall out of normal routines.
“Relaxed schedules, increased screen time and changes or flexibility when it comes to access to food, coupled with little or no physical exercise can add up to unhealthy weight gain and poorer health for children and young adults in the long run.
“Here are some of my basic tips to make sure that your child’s nutrition and well-being are at their optimum level, also starting as early as possible is just as important.
Choose A Healthier Snack
- Set regular meal and snack times to avoid all-day grazing.
- Serve 3 proper meals and keep to 1 to 2 scheduled snacks each day.
- When it is time to eat, make sure your child or teenager sits at the table and not in front of a screen. This way, they are focused on the food in front of them and less likely to overeat or eat out of boredom.
- Ensure plenty helpings of fruits, vegetables and nuts are readily accessible instead of highly processed foods such as nuggets or sausages as a snack. Healthier alternatives ensure young children and teenagers are getting required doses of vitamins and minerals, and that their fiber intake is adequate instead of consuming energy-dense food that contains trans-fat and saturated fat.
- Keep temptation to a minimum with a ‘no junk food and treats’ rule at home so that becomes a normal practice or common knowledge.
Stick To A Schedule
“Especially when it comes to their sleeping patterns, routine and structures are so important. Needless to say, getting enough sleep comes with many health benefits, and it also helps young children and teenagers maintain a healthy weight.
“Make sure your child goes to bed on time and wake up at roughly the same time every day. If necessary, skip daytime naps for older kids, and turn off all screens at least 1 hour before bed. Prolonged screen time may affect their sleep quality, resulting in difficulty to fall sleep.”
Plan A Fun, Creative And Active Home Life
“Encourage your child to be active for at least 30 minutes each day. Whenever possible, allow them to go outside and play.
“Go for a walk, run, and bike ride together as a family. Of course, it is important to be mindful to keep at least 1 meter from people you do not live with when you are out.
“Children over 2 years old and adults should wear a mask. Those under 2 years old should not wear a mask. Alternatively, you can even look for ways for children to be active inside the house. Try dancing, yoga, exercise videos, apps, or online classes – there are plenty of online options these days. However, when it’s not used to improve your child’s quality of life, avoid letting them spend too much on screens such as mobile phone, tablet, television and video games as a sedentary lifestyle is the last thing you want especially when it comes to maintaining their health during this time.”
Disclaimer: All information and professional guidance are carefully provided to address an important but broad topic. Personal consultation with a Dietician is necessary to customize treatments or plans specific to your child’s needs.
Where To Go From Here?
To work with Mohd Fatahudin Ishak, obtain a referral letter to a Dietician from your Doctor for an appointment at the specialist clinic at Tunku Azizah Hospital. Alternatively, have your Doctor address it to any professional Dietician from a private practice if you prefer.