We know that all food eaten in moderation is good and unharmful for us and our children. But with childhood obesity on the rise in Asia, experts say that your child’s eating behaviour and lifestyle can turn everyday food into an unhealthy diet that causes your child to pack on the pounds. Here’s how you can instill the right eating behaviour in your child. 

It’s undeniable that food is the fuel that helps our children to grow healthy and strong. But what happens when our children eat excessively, snack too often or simply don’t get enough exercise to work off the extra calories? When it comes to childhood obesity, it’s how your child eats or lives that determines whether or not he or she grows up without the extra pounds. Eating and lifestyle habits, as well as activity levels all form the big picture that is your child’s daily routine and behaviour.


In Asia, the number of overweight and obese children has increased over the years and the trend is sending alarm bells on the future health risks stemming from childhood obesity, which include heart disease and metabolic diseases. Experts say sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets are the key drivers for childhood obesity today.

Fast food, ice-cream and sweets have long been seen as the culprits of children obesity. But these foods alone are not the sole culprit and moreover, it’s unlikely for children to give up their favourite snacks. The formula for obesity is well-known: a caloric intake higher than levels of physical activity. As experts point out, the family environment or lifestyle trends play a part in shaping the child’s habits that affect whether he gets enough physical activity to burn off the calories.
“Children mirror their parents in their behaviour,” says Dr Vera Oh, a paediatrician at the Singapore Baby and Child Clinic with a special interest in Endocrinology and Growth, “Parents who lead an active lifestyle tend to inculcate that in their offspring.” Dr Oh Jean Yin, Associate Consultant, General & Ambulatory Paediatrics, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, says in many families, routines often include sitting in front of the television or the computer with little physical activity.
“Families are smaller and with working parents there is less emphasis on children playing outdoors,” says Dr Oh Jean Yin, “Children are often cared for by grandparents and the domestic help who may not have to capability to bring them out.” As children grow older, homework and exams become common excuses for lack of time to participate in sports or other physical activities. Children also spend more time in front of the television, on the Internet or on computer games, leading to increasing sedentary lifestyles. Watching television also exposes children to advertising for fast-food, soft drinks or snacks. “Parents need to impart healthy messages from a young age and if needed to be firm with your decisions not to purchase a certain product and to say no,” says Dr Oh Jean Yin.


Dr Vera Oh and Dr Oh Jean Yin agree that family commitment, support and involvement are the most important factor in helping children make the appropriate lifestyle and behaviour medications to maintain a healthy weight. Establish what are the factors that have contributed to your child’s weight issues and take steps to modify behaviour or habits.


Here are some tips

It’s not just about weight loss. Doctors do not advocate simple weight loss for children. As Dr Oh Jean Yin explains, children need adequate nutrition for other aspects of growth and development such as bone health, brain and organ development. Instead, doctors suggest inculcating healthy habits that last a lifetime.
Spend time at mealtimes. Doctors advise families to eat together at meal times. This will give adults opportunities to be good role models for their children. For instance, parents can demonstrate the importance of breakfast, incorporating fruits and vegetables and meals, and having healthy snacks, advises Dr Oh Jean Yin. Spending time together at meal times also allows parents to monitor their child’s eating habits, says Dr Vera Oh. 
Offer healthy snacking alternatives. The snacks available to children will depend on what parents pick up at the supermarket. When grocery shopping, parents can educate children in food types and nutrition. Give them healthy alternatives to snacks, such as buying more fruits and nuts, says Dr Vera Oh, instead of stocking up with potato chips and instant noodles. Limiting the amount of unhealthy food available at home, advises Dr Oh Jean Yin, is appropriate for children because children might not have self-control especially with their favourite snacks.
Get rid of bad eating habits. Bad eating habits such as eating while studying, watching TV, eating when feeling stress, eating between meals, or when parents use food as a reward, all contribute to childhood obesity.
Set realistic goals. Set achievable goals and then formulate realistic plans for your child. For instance, get or child to cut down the number of sweetened drinks from 7 times a week to 3 times a week. By taking baby steps, the success will help the child gain confidence and help them move on to the next step, says Dr Vera Oh.
Give positive reinforcement of healthy behaviour. Use tangible rewards that encourage exercise or positive behaviour, advises Dr Vera Oh. For example, the child could be awarded with a new badminton racquet, or given permission to play outdoors for a longer time.
Change family habits. If the changes involve the whole family, then the child will not feel singled out, say Dr Vera Oh. It is difficult for a child to maintain a healthy lifestyle if the rest of the family is eating junk food and watching television all day. The rest of the family can lead by example. If the child has a “buddy” and encouragement to start an exercise regime, this will help him to stay motivated. Parents should also discourage family members from sabotaging a child’s efforts by name calling or teasing, advises Dr Oh Jean Yin.
At the end of the day, fighting childhood obesity is not just about getting rid about of bad habits, it’s about forming positive behaviour habits too. You can help your child view the changes to made in a positive way. “The child should not be made to feel these modifications are a form of punishment,” says Dr Vera Oh. Getting lots of physical activity, be it time in the playground or engaging in sports, and eating food that is nutritious can be an enjoyable part of your child’s lifestyle. As Dr Vera Oh puts it, “These are things that all normal children should do”.



1. Dr Vera Oh, Paediatrician at the Singapore Baby and Child Clinic with a special interest in Endocrinology and Growth
2. Dr Oh Jean Yin, Associate Consultant, General & Ambulatory Paediatrics, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital
3. Youfa Wang & Tim Lobstein. Worldwide trends in childhood overweight and obesity. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. 2006 1: 11/25