The number of overweight children and youth in Finland has tripled in the past 30 years, according to the National Institute for Health and Welfare's FinTerveys 2017 study. For under 17-year-olds, close to 25 percent of boys are overweight, whereas one-in-six girls are overweight.
An expert on Yle’s Aamu-TV morning show on Thursday says part of the reason is that dietary habits have changed and the size of portions has grown.
”Children snack between meals, and we have all kinds of snacks, many of which contain lots of sugar. As well, a family sitting down to eat at 5 pm every evening is less common," says nutritionist Anette Palssa.
At the same time, kids are moving less. While children and youth have all kinds of hobbies and activities, they’re often taken to them by car instead of walking or cycling. Or, some of the hobbies and games are online, so children don’t even need to leave their own room.
”There’s much less daily physical activity such as playing in the yard. We’re constantly being directed to watch different types of devices and there’s less natural movement,” says doctor Timo Valle, who specialises in diabetes.
Overweight kids often become overweight adults
Moderate use of sugar is not dangerous, Palssa says, but the more sweets a child eats, the more they crave them when they're grown.
”Tastes preferences carry into adulthood. As an adult, if you want to make a dietary change, it can be more challenging. Berries and fruits may taste sour if you're used to eating sweetened food,” she says.
Being overweight as a child often leads to being overweight as an adult. This is in turn raises the risk of developing type-2 diabetes, says Valle.
”In young (overweight) children we can see the same metabolic changes: blood lipids increase, blood pressure rises, the amount of good cholesterol decreases, and there is a thickening in the arteries. These are all signs that can predict adult illnesses,” he says.
Children don't need to know if they’re overweight
Palssa says that an overweight child is a family matter. Changes toward a healthier dietary direction can be made at home without raising the issue with the child.
”A child shouldn’t think that he or she is the wrong weight or size. Dietary changes can be made not just for the child but also for the health of the whole family,” says Palssa.
Valle agrees: ”A child shouldn’t be concerned about his or her own weight. That can lead to a lifelong, complicated relationship with food, self-image and weight. That mistake should not be made.”
The most important thing is to eat regularly with clear meals and meal times, and not continual snacking. When an adult ensures that the food on offer is healthy and of good quality, a child can decide how much to eat.
At the same time, good eating habits should not be left up to the child. However, owing to different backgrounds and resources, not all parents share the same responsibility for healthy eating.
Which is why both Palssa and Valle also call on society as a whole to take responsibility, saying schools should not cut back on healthy food offerings, adding that grocery stores could do a better job of displaying healthier choices.
”There could be something sensible and healthy at supermarket check-outs, not chocolate bars," Palssa suggests .