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Preschoolers piling on pounds

TV watching and scoffing unhealthy snacks and soft drinks are making preschool children fatter than ever, according to research conducted in ten European countries.

Obesity among European pre-schoolers is hitting record levels, with more than one in eight children overweight in northern Europe, rising to more than 25% in parts of southern Europe. Young girls in Spain show the highest levels, with 38% of them now classified as overweight or obese. This data comes on the heels of figures showing high levels of obesity in children aged 10–12.

“We need a new approach to prevent obesity,” said the coordinator of the ToyBox-study, Dr Yannis Manios, Assistant Professor at Harokopio University, Athens. “Young children are naturally energetic and they like being physically active since for them this is a way to interact socially and make friends. However, the natural human preference for sweet tasting and energy-dense foods and drinks is leading children towards these food items whenever they are exposed to them. For these reasons, obesity prevention programmes should try to ensure that children have free time and space to be physically active, create a healthy food and drink environment but also guide teachers and parents on how they can promote such behaviours.”

Dr Manios and his team highlighted the need for health-promoting policies. “We found that many countries are lacking clear guidelines on healthy eating and active play,” he said. “However, there is good evidence linking sedentary behaviour with subsequent obesity. Therefore, TV watching in kindergartens should be replaced by more active, non-competitive, fun activities which will promote the participation of the whole class and help children to achieve optimal growth, health and well-being.

“Similarly at home, TVs in the bedroom and unhealthy snacks in the kitchen cupboard are a bad idea. Parents should also remember that their role is not only to provide healthy food and drink options but to act as a role model themselves.”

The results of the first phase of the ToyBox-study have been published in a number of articles as a special supplement to Obesity Reviews.

Countries involved in the ToyBox-study are: Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. The research is supported by a €2.9m grant from the European Commission, and will include development and testing of a new programme designed to help kindergartens in six European countries to promote healthy snacking, water consumption, physical activity and limiting sedentary activities.

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