Indian moms are awkward around fat kids

After Internet users unleashed a venomous attack against a US-based fashion magazine staffer, who wrote about the diet she put her 7-year-old daughter on, Anuradha Varma finds out how comfortable Indian mothers are when handling overweight kids.

Although 36-year-old New Delhi resident and homemaker Shalini Kalla Bansal is busy most mornings, alternating between an intensive yoga and gym routine, she finds herself grappling with a fitness quandary. It's not her own, but her 10-year-old son's. The little boy, says his paediatrician, is 10 kilos overweight, and living in a large family with doting grandparents who stock up on mithai, isn't helping.

Bansal's trouble is made worse by the knowledge that she played a part in creating the weight monster. Born underweight, he was fed parathas smeared with ghee; a dinner table habit that stuck. "His weight is beginning to lower his confidence. He tells me his classmates call him fat, and his teacher doesn't include him in class activities. That has turned him even more lethargic. He doesn't look smart like the other kids," she rues.

Bansal's plan is to enroll him for tennis lessons and restrict treats to once a week.

That's not very different from what US Vogue writer Dara-Lynn Weiss wanted for her seven-year-old obese daughter, Bea. An article she wrote in this month's issue of the magazine - admitting to depriving her of dinner, banning 'Pizza Fridays', and chucking a hot chocolate in the bin after the coffee shop was unable to provide the exact calorie count of the drink Bea had ordered - has earned her little except Internet outrage and the Monster Mom moniker.

Weiss, say Indian health experts, is no different from modern Indian mothers who are at a loss when it comes to overweight kids, unable to tackle what they are up against. Dr Paula Goel, adolescent physician and director of Fayth Clinic in Mumbai, runs weight-loss workshops for adolescents aged 12 and over. Often, she encounters assertive mothers embarrassed when they are unable to "show off their daughters at family functions". "One of them tried bariatric surgery for her 16-year-old, a procedure that's best done only after a girl turns 18. If she were to conceive, there is a chance that the foetus would not receive adequate nutrition due to reduced stomach size," Dr Goel explains.

It is often a question of right intent, wrong approach. Author of Jaldi Fit Kids, Namita Jain says a child fed on junk food grows into an adult who can't do without calorie-heavy snacks. The trick is in communicating the right message to the child. The emphasis, she says, must remain on healthy eating patterns, not starvation. Aditi Saksena, a homoeopathic child specialist, is mother to a seven and eight-year-old, one of whom is grappling with excess weight. "If they have pizza for lunch, it will be lauki and roti for dinner," says Saksena, who has noticed a growing incidence of low energy levels, acne breakout and dandruff among teens, usually a result of bad eating habits.

Which is why at BLK Superspeciality Hospital in New Delhi, parents are counselled too. "Parents also feel the pressure of peer competition. A recent survey conducted among 14 to 18-year-olds revealed that in Delhi's private schools alone, the prevalence of overweight adolescents was 34.5 per cent," says Shachi Sohal, senior dietician with the hospital.

Children as young as 10 are aware of their weight, say experts. Saksena speaks of a young girl who was brought to her with skin eruptions around her hairline, and parched lips. "It turned out that since she was chubby, she skipped her mother's butter-laden roti tiffin on most days. Some school girls have been seen to skip meals and survive on juice from the canteen."

The thin-is-in commandment that little girls and their mothers are brainwashed about through the media, and lifestyle events like the kids' fashion week that was held in Mumbai recently, is playing with young minds and fuelling what Karina Rajpal, owner of designer brand, Kidology believes is a 30,000 crore kids fashion industry that is growing by 25 per cent each year. Making a judicious meal choice takes more than going for anything that carries the 'diet' tag, says Gurgaon-based lifestyle advisor, Nandini Gulati. "Baked chips contain harmful trans-fats. Diet colas contain aspartame (artificial sweetener), which is worse than sugar. Parents insist their kids drink milk when it's known that sesame seeds, for instance, contain 20 times more calcium than milk," she says.

Indians kid can't run or hop 61% school children do not possess adequate skills to engage in sport 48% not fully proficient in running 64% not proficient in hopping 71% unable to throw or catch effectively .

(Facts revealed by EduSports - a physical education and school sports enterprise - survey, covering 73 schools across 39 Indian cities during the academic year 2010-2011)

What should a pre-teen eat in a day? 5 portions of cereals (wheat, rice, bread, cornflakes) 2 bowls of pulses, fruits and vegetables for vitamin and mineral content An occasional serving of curd and paneer 1 portion of chicken/fish/eggs if non-vegetarian (Deepika Aggarwal, senior dietician, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals).

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