Czech children put on weight due to fast-food lifestyle 'high in calories'

More than half of Czech adults are overweight with the number rising every year. Obesity most often occurs among those 45 and over. They jeopardize their health and also set a bad example to their children who are getting fatter and fatter.

"According to a report published recently the number of overweight children in the Czech Republic has been growing quite rapidly. It is not as bad as in the USA where it is about 30 percent but we have to be alert. There definitely are two age groups which are at risk more than others. The first are children who are about five or six years old and then teenagers. The percentage of overweight children in these groups is as high as twenty-five, thirty percent."

Says Josef Zemanek who works as a pediatrician. In his opinion things really began to change after 1989. The end of communism brought a wide variety of products not heard of before. Parents wanting only the best for their beloved children would go that extra mile to please them. Mothers have started working more, shortening their maternity leave to a minimum. Time has become more precious. The fast lifestyle has changed their routines and consequently influenced the eating habits of their children.

"Those children who are in a rush are more likely to get obese than those who eat slowly. It is all about the lifestyle. About four years ago I conducted my own survey and I found out that of hundred children only about 23 eat breakfast. The rest eat during the main break in school and twenty of them said their first food was lunch. The outcome is that they feel hungry and stressed. It is common among the children who don't eat regularly. They then try to make up for their hypoglycemia by eating food they should not be eating. It is food high in calories such as ice cream, hamburgers and other kinds of food which is called fast food."

"Just look at France. There they eat more slowly and without rushing. It is so much different over here. We are always in a rush, we eat in a rush. The number of obese people in France is much smaller than in the Central Europe. I think that we don't realize how important it is to spend enough time with food, with eating. Let's call it some kind of 'psychology' of mothers towards food."

It seems that obesity among children has been recognized as a problem even in the Czech Republic. Many overweight children now suffer from illnesses previously common only among adults. For example there are more children with high cholesterol or cardiac problems. Zuzana Urbanova treats some of these children. I talked to her at a press conference entitled "How to prevent obesity among children" which aimed to raise awareness. So have they been successful?

"We are successful with young girls because they are motivated to be pretty. It is much more difficult with boys. For example a ten-year-old boy is strong and in his community of friends it is fine to be strong. He of course doesn't mind it and doesn't think about the future and about possible illnesses."

What are the main reasons for these children becoming so fat?

"We, adults offer them food that is high in calories and also opportunities for physical activity are fewer than before. They cannot play outside, around the house because there is traffic. It is more difficult to send a child to sport activities."

Would you say that the boom of fast food and multiplex cinemas and similar things have increased the number of obese children?

"It is just a part. It is more about the modern lifestyle. Parents don't have time to plan activities for their children at the weekend. It is much easier to buy them something quick. They are very busy and that is the result. This lifestyle came to our country late. So we can expect that it will get even worse in the future."

How many years do you think it will take?

"Five or ten years, it depends. We are doing our best but it is very difficult."

Everybody should know what he is eating. Children should exercise seven hours a week and in addition it is useful to acquire information about genetical material.

Anita Kokasova came into Josef Zemanek's surgery to tell me about her lifelong fight against the kilos. Dr Zemanek is keeping an eye on her son Martin.

Anita has always been overweight. Her mother suffered from diabetes and moreover her father's mother was very obese. This inherited genetical information was stronger than numerous diets and medical treatments. Everything that worked with others failed in Anita's case, however hard she tried. The nightmare ended up just a few years ago when she underwent a surgery and had her stomach stapled. Fully satisfied now Anita couldn't hide the bitterness in her voice.

"My mother didn't do anything about my weight. That is the main reason why it all went so wrong for me. I think she thought, "a chubby child is a healthy child." I am sure that if she had done something about it, it would not have gone so far. I went through tough times because other children would tease me about my weight. Children can be very malicious and I don't want my children to experience the same. Therefore I have taught them that they mustn't laugh if a child is fat, slim or has one leg shorter than the other. It definitely all depends on the mother. She has to observe the child. My mother was slim and didn't know what it feels like to be laughed at but I do know it very well."

Unlike her mother Anita Kokasova looks after the weight of her children. Sixteen-year-old Martin takes after her and so has to be careful about food he eats.

"It is a bit difficult at the very beginning but you get used to it after some time," says Martin about his eating habits. "I don't eat anything after 5pm, anything apart from an apple. I am planning to lose some weight and get some muscles. I would like my figure to look better."

Josef Zemanek concludes.

"You have heard the story of an adult patient. I am sure that if she had had the chance to use the same routine which she has established with her children when she was a child she would not have had to go through such difficult procedures. I think it is all about society. It is necessary to talk about it, to persuade mothers, fathers and grandmothers. There is nothing else that could possibly help."