The frightening truth about childhood obesity

The frightening truth about childhood obesity

By Catherine Bonifant

Childhood obesity is now the most common chronic disease of childhood.  More than a quarter (around 27%, or 1 in 4) of all Australian children and adolescents are overweight or obese. And sadly, we know the stats in adults, all too well. Nearly two-thirds (around 63%) of Australian adults are overweight or obese.

In Queensland alone, the average adult has gained 4kgs over the past decade.  On average, overweight Queensland adults need to lose 7kgs to reach a healthy weight range, and obese Queenslanders need to lose 28kgs to reach the same healthy weight. 28kg.

And the problem is not just confined to Australia. The World Health Organisation reports that globally, around 41 million children under the age of five, were overweight or obese in 2014. Troubling, given that approximately 3.1 million children die from hunger each year.


And there seems to be no simple solution.  Children are “busy”, becoming more anxious, and don’t always get good sleep.


On a positive note, we now better understand the psychosocial and emotional impact of food behaviours in young people. But we know kids are spending too much time in front of screens.


We know kids are eating too much processed food, and not enough fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains. In the National Health Survey 2014-2015, only seven in 10 children aged 2-18 years met the guidelines for recommended daily serves of fruit, and only 5.4% met the guidelines for serves of vegetables. Alarmingly, just one in 20 (5.1%) children met both guidelines.


But what can we, as parents and caregivers, do to ensure a bright, healthy future for ourselves and our families? These five tips will go a long way to set you on the right path.


1.     Remove all sugary drinks from your usual diet

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting our intake of (food and) drinks that contain added sugars, such as soft drinks, cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy drinks and sports drinks.

Children simply do not need these drinks.  Water should be encouraged as everyone’s main drink. It is readily available, free of sugar and food additives, and contains no calories. Most children enjoy water if it is encouraged from an early age. And how do you stop kids from having sugary drinks?  Don’t buy them! Simple.

2.     Limit “extra” foods

“Extra” foods (or discretionary foods) are often high in fat and/or sugar (and therefore calories) and do not provide essential nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) that are important for good health. Children learn to prefer these foods if they are offered regularly.

“Extra” foods include potato crisps, chocolate bars, confectionary, ice-cream, cakes, pastries, donuts, muesli bars, health food bars, most sweet and savoury biscuits, pies, sausage rolls, fried takeaway foods, processed meats (eg devon), and sausages.

Provide children with nourishing and filling snacks, like fruit kebabs, yoghurt, scones, fruit smoothies, pikelets, fruit toast, corn on the cob, a fruit and vege plate, popcorn, hummus and avocado dips, pretzels, cheese and crackers, corn and rice based crispbreads, boiled eggs, or vegetable soup.

As a rough guide, when checking the food label for fat, aim for products with less than 10g of total fat/100g. For sugar, aim for no more than 10- 15g of sugar/100g.

3.     Make activity a priority

Daily activity is an essential part of maintaining a healthy weight. National physical activity guidelines state that children and adolescents should participate in at least 60 minutes (and up to several hours) of moderate to vigorous intensity activity every day.  AND children and young people should not spend more than two hours per day using electronic media (TV, video games, phones, tablets).  Establish rules for ALL members of the household eg no phones in the bedroom, no television after 7pm.

Activity needs to be given priority in every family member’s day – set an activity target, write it down, and stick to it.

4.     Get organised!

You are more likely to make healthy food choices if you are organised. Preparation is key. Create a weekly meal plan, and stick to it.  Shop from a list. Prepare enough for leftovers that can be eaten for lunch or dinner the next day, or to go in the freezer.

Prepare lunch for the whole family the evening before.  Bake on a weekend and freeze individual portions of healthy muffins, fruit bread or savoury scrolls. Portion control your meals eg use a ½ cup measure to serve pasta or rice, cut meat into portions before you cook it, use smaller bowls and plates. Plan, plan, plan!

5.     Get a good night’s sleep

Did you know that inadequate sleep in young people (and adults) can lead to weight gain?  Sleeping less than seven hours causes:

  • An increase in hunger and appetite
  • An increase in cravings for high carbohydrate, high calorie foods 

  • A reduction in metabolism, causing fat to be stored in your body 

  • Fatigue and lack of energy 

  • Increased levels of stress hormones 

  • Increases in insulin resistance that can lead to type 2 diabetes. 

Ensure everyone in the family is getting adequate sleep.  Establish good night-time routines and rituals, and avoid electronic devices and too much TV at bedtime. 

A healthy weight is achievable.  Introduce new ideas and goals one at a time, and remember it takes time for habits to be incorporated into everyday life. Small, sustainable changes in behaviour are as critical to achieving long-term outcomes.

Catherine Bonifant

Catherine Bonifant has been a paediatric dietitian for over 17 years, in addition to private consultant work with CHILDD ( She is currently the Clinical Leader of Medical Dietetic Services at a large paediatric tertiary hospital in Queensland. Catherine also works with the Queensland Child and Youth Clinical Network in childhood obesity prevention. Catherine is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and an active member of the Dietitians Association of Australia.

Catherine worked at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane as a clinical paediatric dietitian for more than 13 years, and also managed her own paediatric private practice based at the Mater Specialist Centre in Brisbane, specialising in infant nutrition.

Catherine has worked as a consultant dietitian with elite athletes at the Queensland Academy of Sport and with high level sporting teams such as the Brisbane Broncos and the Queensland Reds, and has also consulted in the community nutrition setting at Nutrition Australia, managing the Queensland Child Care Advisory Service, and with not for profit organisation Save the Children Fund. She is the mother of three young girls.

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Comments (4):

Fantastic! I look forward to reading Catherine’s article. It’s hard to remember how many servings of everything our little ones need each day and then come up with interesting ideas on how we can get get that many number of servings of eg veggies into them each day! What a great conversation starter! Thanks DearMolly and thanks Catherine!

ClaireB - December 18, 2017

Thanks so much Catherine Bonifant. A fantastic article and ClaireB yes she is doing us a big favour and going to do a lunchbox article for January 2018 which should be very helpful.

claremary - December 18, 2017

Brilliant article! Would love a follow up article on healthy lunchbox ideas!

ClaireB - December 17, 2017

Brilliant article! Would love a follow up article on healthy lunchbox ideas!

ClaireB - December 17, 2017