YOUNG primary pupils are piling on the pounds just as experts fear a curricular squeeze has led to physical activities in school being slimmed down.
Delegates to the 13th international congress on dietetics in Edinburgh this week heard that the proportion of children who are overweight increases as classes move up through primary school.
In a study of 600 Leeds primary pupils, 18 per cent of eight-year-olds were overweight, according to international body mass index criteria, while 9 per cent were obese. The figures rose to 26 per cent and 14 per cent over a two year period when the same children reached the age of 10.
Pinki Sahota, research dietician at Leeds Metropolitan University, commented: "Obesity in children is a major public health problem. It needs to be taken seriously."
The study, which reflects the findings of a study published last year carried out by Glasgow University on 2,630 children, highlights the need for effective health promotion. The Leeds children had taken part in a programme aimed at encouraging healthy habits in diet and exercise. It had failed, however, because it was only funded for one year.
"Better resourced programmes are needed to support children and their families, and to curb the spiralling problem of childhood obesity," Ms Sahota stressed.
The message has got through in Scotland where Sportscotland has set up an "active primary school programme" in which a co-ordinator working in a number of clustered schools will promote physical activities in and out of the curriculum. Healthier lifestyles are to be encouraged such as walking or cycling to schol.
But primary teachers still need a boost to help them promote physical activities, according to Stewart Harris, Sportscotland's head of youth sports.
"With the emphasis being placed on the three Rs, physical activities are being squeezed from the curriculum. And apart from netball and football, these schools have never had a great tradition of extracurricular sports."
Six local authorities are expected to take part in the programme. But Mr Harris said Government funding is essential if it is to go nationwide.
Cathy Higginson, research specialist in nutrition with the Health Education Board for Scotland, said it was essential that diet and exercise go "hand in hand" in the fight against the flab. " Initiatives such as issuing pupils with pre-paid plastic "smart" cards for school lunches were a help in promoting healthy eating habits, Dr Higginson said. Another study presented at the congress which featured a smart card system introduced at Graeme High in Falkirk found that the uptake of school meals had increased. Children who received free meals were less identifiable and the stigma was removed, Michael Clapham, a lecturer in the department of dietetics and nutrition at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, said.
Mr Clapham warned, however, that schools may also have to make other adjustments such as increasing the availability of healthy foods the children say they want - such as baked potatoes. "They may also have to reduce the length of lunchtimes and provide activities so the children have less incentive to go out of school for their lunch."
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