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Child health

Eat less, son

Mothers do not always recognize when their children are overweight

A classic grandmother, Dona Benta, and her grandson: pleasure in feeding the offspringIllustration from the cover of the book Dona Benta Comer Bem, IBEP/NACIONALA classic grandmother, Dona Benta, and her grandson: pleasure in feeding the offspring

The look of a mother is powerful. It discovers secrets, reveals the future, strengthens and chases away ghosts. But it does not always identify when children are a little overweight. In a study done in Victoria, the capital of Espirito Santo, with 1282 children aged between 7 and 10, only 10% of the mothers recognized that their overweight or obese children were really weighing more than is normal for their height and age.

In another study, this team from the Federal University of Espirito Santo (Ufes) found that 14% of this same group of children had higher than normal blood pressure. “These are alarming data,” said Maria del Carmen Molina, a professor from Ufes and the coordinator of these studies.”Being overweight and hypertension are two risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, the leading cause of death in the Brazilian population.” The researchers expected that 20% of the children would be above the recommended weight (they found 23.3% to be overweight or obese) and that at most 10% would have high blood pressure.

To assess the future risk of heart attacks or cerebral vascular accidents the researchers from Ufes not only measured the weight, height and blood pressure of children from 7 to 10 from 29 public schools and 6 private schools in Vitória. They also assessed the diet, by asking how frequently the children consumed fruit, fruit juice, vegetables, milk, beans, desserts, snacks, soft drinks, potatoes and mayonnaise and if they were in the habit of eating breakfast. What they saw was that these young children are not eating as well as their mother imagined. They also saw that the leisure of these children, particularly their sedentary activities, is intense, spending at least three hours in front of the TV or playing video games; they rarely go out to play catch or soccer or ride their bicycles.

Examining these four variables (being overweight, hypertension, poor quality diet and four or more hours of sedentary leisure a day), the researchers saw that 20% of the children had three risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, 34% had two factors, 27% had only one factor and 12% had no risk factors, according to the work of the team from Ufes, jointly with the Autonomous University of Madrid, which is about to be published. The state of health of the children may reflect that of their mothers. In a survey with 14,914 Brazilian children under 10, which was published in 1996 in the Public Health Journal, Elyne Engstrom, from the State Department of Health of Rio de Janeiro, and Luiz Anjos, from the National Public Health School, saw that overweight children had mothers who were also overweight. A study on 800 mothers and fathers of 439 students, carried out in the Netherlands, had similar results: 75% of the mothers and 77% of the fathers of overweight children said that their son or daughter were of a normal weight. In this research, published in January in the journal, Acta Paediatrica, a direct relationship also emerged between the excess weight of the parents and their children.

Premature babies
Now the study in Vitória is revealing an association between the mothers’ educational level and their children’s risk of cardiovascular disease: the more the mothers have studied, the better the diet tends to be, and therefore the weight, the more normal the blood pressure and the more diversified the physical activities of the children. “We also saw that hypertension is more common in premature children who are born before 37 weeks”, Said Maria del Carmen. “The development of chronic diseases could be one of the results of being born before the normal term and with a weight between 700 grams and 1 kilogram (kg), instead of at least 2.5 kg.”

The results of these studies did not just circulate in the specialist scientific journals. “We sent a letter to each family informing them that their child had high blood pressure and we suggested they go to a public health clinic or a doctor to confirm the diagnosis”, said Maria del Carmen. “We also told the Health Department, whose directors and technicians had begun to notice that hypertension, previously considered an adult disease, can also be a problem in children. The first measure taken was to buy blood pressure meters suitable for children and to send them to the health centers.”

It’s not only the families – or the mothers – who are responsible for this situation. “In schools that handle children from low income families”, observed Maria del Carmen, “even with a standardized menu, the dinner ladies put a lot more food on the children’s plates than they should because they think they need it. Even with a standardized menu the calorie count of the meals offered to children is sometimes double what it should be”.

Scientific article
MOLINA, M.C. et al. Correspondência entre o estado nutricional de crianças and a percepção materna: um estudo populacional. Cadernos de Saúde Pública. 25(10):2.285-90. Oct. 2009.