Dads' bad habits aid obesity

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 11/03/2012
Craig Smith says he has no issue giving his kids Tessa, 4, and Lucas, 6, blue-top milk, but makes sure to feed them plenty of vegetables.
MICHAEL BRADLEY/Fairfax NZ
MAKING CHOICES: Craig Smith says he has no issue giving his kids Tessa, 4, and Lucas, 6, blue-top milk, but makes sure to feed them plenty of vegetables.

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A researcher says fathers' tastes for unhealthy foods could affect their children, writes Michelle Robinson.

Dads' lazy eating habits are partly to blame for childhood obesity in New Zealand, a leading paediatric health researcher says.

Professor Barry Taylor hopes his latest research will get to the bottom of the alarmingly increasing rate of childhood obesity.

About 20 per cent of New Zealand children are regarded as overweight, with a further 10 per cent considered obese.

Taylor, head of paediatrics at the Dunedin School of Medicine, is investigating methods to prevent rapid weight gain in early childhood.

He has "no idea" what to expect from the results of the latest research, funded with $2.3 million from the New Zealand Health Research Council.

But in the meantime he has managed to nut out a few clues as to what's contributing to Kiwi children's ballooning weight.

"I look in the pantry," he says.

Fussy children and toddlers have too much say on the family shopping list, as do their fathers, Taylor said.

"I'll often find that the father has insisted on having [full fat] blue-label milk because they don't like the [low fat] green-label. Even though it's been recommended for many years after the age of two that you should not drink blue milk because of the calories."

Red Beach father of two Craig Smith can't resist blue-top milk after growing up on a farm.

"I hate light milk, but I'm pretty skinny and I drank huge amounts of it as a kid.

"We eat reasonably healthy so if you have full-cream milk it doesn't matter, as long as the kids are running around."

Lucas, 6, and Tessa, 4, who are a healthy weight, often have Milo milk drinks with their dad, along with yoghurt or icecream and the occasional chocolate biscuit. He keeps them off fizzy drink, only allowing them the occasional glass of juice or lemonade, and regular snacks include fruit or muesli bars and rice crackers.

Dinner usually consists of sausages or mince "because it's easy to cook" but he balances this with plenty of vegetables.

North Shore father Paul Jones has a healthy 6-year-old daughter, Ruth, but he has to think about how his eating habits affect her.

"I'm lazy in that respect, my wife Judy does the shopping," he said. "I eat what's put in front of me."

Jones's job as a quality safety and environmental manager at a packaging manufacturer means he does not get home until after 6pm.

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"If we were both working there would be a lot more takeout," he says.

Fortunately, Jones is no sweet-tooth, so Ruth was spared treats like fizzy drink for a long time. When she was recently introduced to it, she didn't like the taste.

But she has developed her dad's liking for potato chips.

"Ruth, as soon as she hears the packet she sits down next to me, she's picked up that bad habit. It's something I haven't been that conscious of."

Taylor points to earlier studies he has been involved in which suggest up to 67 per cent of Otago infants are growing faster than the World Health Organisation's recommended standards.

He said television advertising is partly to blame, and particularly food advertising at children's television times, which he wants to see government restrictions on.

"I blame TV watching and food manufacturers and the government for not making vegetables GST-free. We should leave the obese child alone and focus on their family, their school, their environment and TV."

It's already known that babies are good at self-regulating their food intake for their growth needs, which is why breastfeeding is important, he said.

"It's useful to breastfeed for the first six months, which has a small effect on the child's growth and sets their preferences for food and how much they eat."

That ability to self-regulate food intake stops at about 3, he said.

At that age it becomes hard for children to turn down food placed in front of them.

"A part of that is their environment. We should be encouraging children to eat to their level of hunger rather than finish their plate."

Most parents don't know they are doing anything wrong.

Worldwide, 70 per cent of parents of overweight children are oblivious to their child's ill health, Taylor said.

He founded Dunedin's Childhood Obesity Clinic which deals with "severely" overweight children. It worries him because the longer a person is overweight, the greater their risk of heart disease and stroke.

But when first approached by the government to pilot research which would help find a solution, he was not sure what would work.

And he's still unsure.

The latest three-year trial involves 805 Dunedin families randomised into four groups.

One group received help to get infants into healthy sleep routines, another focused on activity, breastfeeding and healthy weaning, another with both sleep and feeding support, and one with no support other than what was already available through Plunket.

The findings are due to be released later this year, and Taylor cannot wait for the results.

"I really don't know what to expect, it's like opening presents."

Three similar studies are under way in Australia, the results of which will be combined with the New Zealand findings to determine if there is a trend.

- Sunday Star Times

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