Opening the Dialogue on Childhood Obesity with Our Health Our FutureMonday, March 07, 2011
Today marked the launch of a national dialogue on childhood obesity. With a new site called Our Health Our Future, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments of Canada are reaching out to children, parents, caregivers and educators to encourage them to engage in discussion that will include "making our social and physical environments more supportive of physical activity and healthy eating, identifying and addressing obesity risks in children early, increasing access to nutritious foods and decreasing the marketing of foods and beverages high in fat, sugar and/or sodium to children." When I was invited to attend today's press conference to share the challenges I face as a parent, I felt extremely honoured. Both the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health and the Honourable Maureen MacDonald, Minister of Health and Wellness, Nova Scotia were there to speak about this initiative.
This was the first time I had ever attended a press conference as a guest speaker. I was really excited to share my thoughts and had a hard time limiting what I wanted to say. Yet, once it was time for the conference to begin, I became nervous. Very nervous. There were a lot of cameras and several important people there and I soon found myself worrying about being able to clearly verbalize my thoughts. It's so much easier to blog about them, thanks to the delete button and grammar check function. I had prepared some notes but didn't want to resort to reading from them, but rather speak from the heart. At one point, I forgot what I wanted to say next and then stumbled through the rest. I will attempt, therefore, to share in this post what I wish I could have eloquently put into words today.
When I first became pregnant, food was a very important factor in our lives. It became an even greater issue once our daughter was born and we chose to breastfeed. My daughter weighed in at approximately 6 lbs 12 oz when we left the hospital. Based on her age and weight, I remember that she fell on the lower end of the growth chart. And for the first five months of exclusive breastfeeding, she was only gaining about a 1 lb a month which was barely on the lower end of 'normal'. Consequently, I felt an incredible amount of pressure to introduce solids early. In the back of my head, I was always thinking about how exclusive breastfeeding had several health benefits, one of which included lowering the chances of obesity later in life. I wasn't really concerned about my daughter being 'overweight' per se, but I was still worried about overfeeding and making sure she was fed the healthiest options. We chose to stick to mainly organic and natural foods as much as possible. And since we are a dual-income family, we can afford that luxury. But back then, the availability of certain products was somewhat sparse among the local grocery stores. And there have been times when it was simply more convenient to buy conventional foods. However, it was always surprising to read labels and discover how many foods that I grew up with and that are marketed for kids are full of sugar.
Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I have a sweet tooth. Unfortunately, my children love sweet treats almost as much as I do. And while limiting the amounts of sugary foods our children eat, we don't deprive them of it entirely. Instead, we opt for foods containing unprocessed or natural sweeteners. A number of weeks ago, I met Peggy Kotsopoulos who is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. She spoke to the impact of sugary foods in kids' diets and to its correlation to childhood obesity. It reminded me of the importance of monitoring the quantity and quality of sugar in our children's diet. She offered up suggested alternatives that have a lower glycemic index when compared to regular sugar. And while we have been using these alternative sweeteners for many years at home and look for them in ingredient labels, I often wonder about the actual amount my kids are consuming. Because as much as we can control what they eat while at home, it's not as easy once we leave the house.
One of the issues I mentioned today is the difficulty in taking our kids out to certain attractions and venues that also happen to sell food but offer little in the way of healthy options. And because I am not the most organized mother I know, I don't always plan to have healthy snacks on hand. But what about places that don't allow you to bring in your own food, such as at an indoor playground, let's say? I have been to some locations where the concession stand has candy bars and chips strategically placed where kids will find them. Our local community centre is conscious of offering healthier choices for kids via vending machine and has colour-coded stickers to identify which ones they are. But I'm not sure kids will take the time to read the legend. I would imagine that if they see the candy, they will want it. I have also been in schools that have taken out vending machines that sell snacks and have kept only those that sell milk. However, they also sell flavoured milk that contains significantly higher amounts of sugar than regular milk. And what about low-fat foods that are supposed to be healthier but have more sugar to help make it taste better?
Another issue I touched upon has to deal with physical activity. While my daughter's school and daycare include physical activity as part of their daily routines, we sometimes find it hard to keep our kids just as active at home. We don't have a huge play space for the kids in our home but they do have a large yard to play in. What ends up happening, however, is the kids stay mostly indoors, especially during the cold winter months. With two parents that both work during the day, we prepare dinner as soon as we come home. We could easily send our kids outside to play but we both feel it's unsafe to leave them unsupervised. Our community is great but we still worry regardless. During the warmer months, we can barbecue outdoors while the kids play. The community centre also offers some fantastic summer programs for kids but you have to register early to secure a spot. The playground also required some repairs last year as well but I'm sure it will happen over time. In meanwhile, I embrace my children's love of music and dance and join in when they want to dance their crazy dances. And while I also embrace technology and want our kids to be tech savvy, we try to limit the amount of time that they spend sitting in front of a screen by introducing them to games and shows that encourage them to move around and have fun.
In the end, I am grateful that my kids are healthy and happy. Even though my daughter may be on the higher end of the growth percentile now, I try not to focus too much on the numbers. As long as she grows up with a healthy self image and self-esteem, then I'll be happy. Because she is beautiful, bright and makes me proud. And, by the way, the very reason I started this blog. Finally, I am also grateful that we Canadians now have place to share ideas and discuss how we can make a unified effort to ensure the health and happiness of all of our children.
Disclosure: The thoughts expressed in this post are my own.