Parental attitudes key in tackling teen obesity

Fighting teenage obesity in New Zealand could be as simple as establishing family rules around food and limiting screen time, a new University of Otago study has found.

Thirty Pacific Island families living on similar budgets in the Auckland suburb of Mangere took part. 

Lead researcher Dr Tasileta Teevale says her team was guided by one key question: how did neighbouring households, half with an obese adolescent and the other half with a healthy weight adolescent, differ in terms of food and physical activity practices in the home?

The study found three key differences:

  • Parents with healthy weight children regularly ate breakfast and lunch and encouraged their children to do the same. Parents of obese children often skipped these meals due to time constraints and work commitments.

In addition, obese children often substituted breakfast at home with high-energy store-bought food as breakfast on-the-run. 

  • Parents with healthy weight children had specific, strict, household food rules, such as banning fizzy drinks, cooking homemade meals, and not buying junk food.
  • Households with healthy weight children had rules limiting screen time (such as television and electronic gaming).

"Parents coming home from double shifts for instance often they will find the thing that is easiest the default choice is to go to a dairy to purchase breakfast foods for children which is a can of coke and a pie," says Dr Teevale.

Mangere mother Dessica Tohilima knows the challenges of feeding a big family. 

Her five daughters aged 10 years old and 17 years old have fairly strict rules around a healthy balanced diet.

"I've said it to them since they were little babies how important it is to have their veges even though they don't like it, they're literally forced!"

She and her partner Ashley, a foreman, have just $120 a week to fill the fridge - they shop at the markets for cheaper fruit and vege and cut corners in other areas. 

"If we don't have bread we make it, and we spend family time together doing 'free' things like visits to parks, to save money."

Mangere Budgeting Service says even when parents have the right attitude to putting healthy food on the table, it's not always possible for working families across the socio-economic spectrum.

CEO Darryl Evans says "let's be real we all want to do better and to eat healthy but being healthy is expensive".

Mangere Budgeting Service says last year the average family with four children had just $83 a week to spend on food after paying for power, rent and petrol - this year they have just $30 a week."

Their Healthy Kai cooking and shopping programme is helping.

"We take families shopping and teach them where to look for bargains. Basically anything above the shoulder and below the knee or at the end of an aisle is cheaper - at eye level often you can't afford it " says Mr Evans.

Food for thought for all of us, given 40 percent of Kiwi kids are now deemed overweight or obese.