Obesity on the rise among Czech children

Goulash, dumplings, pork and cabbage – at first sight, the Czech diet doesn’t seem like one of Europe’s most balanced – but up until recently, Czechs haven’t had serious problems with their weight. But now, Czech doctors are warning of a serious problem. The number of overweight and obese children is growing. The main problem, they point out, is that obesity is not just a cosmetic issue, as it can do a real damage to children’s health:

“The greatest risk is that obese children usually become obese adults. Obesity is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases or type-2 diabetes and many other diseases of adulthood.”

Jitka Kytnarova, who works as a general practitioner in Prague’s faculty hospital at Vinohrady, confirms that in recent years she has been encountering a growing number of children with weight-problems among her patients. When compared to the US or parts of Western European, such as Great Britain, the Czech Republic is still doing quite well. But Mrs Kytnarova says this could easily change if we don’t apply effective measures to curb the problem:

“We are in one third from the lowest border of prevalence of obesity in Europe. So that’s not so bad. But we cannot be so happy with these numbers because even in Czech Republic the prevalence is increasing. There are about six percent of obese children and further eight or nine percent are overweight. The prevalence of obesity unfortunately increased in the last ten years by about three percent.”

Iva Malkova has been involved in fighting children’s obesity for years. She is one of the founders of the Czech weight watchers organization called STOB, or Stop Obesity. And she has also come up with the idea of setting up special courses for overweight children and their parents. We meet in the evening after one of her classes to discuss her project over a cup of coffee:

“I think that parents are models for their children. Small children up to the age of thirteen, fourteen years cannot change themselves if they don’t have support of their family. The problem is that obese parents are not motivated and interested in the therapy of their child. The courses consist of one hour of exercise - we want parents to exercise with the children - and two hours of therapy. I think that for parents it’s a very good experience to see how their child behaves with other children. At the beginning they are not happy that they must come but then they are happy because the aim is not only to lose weight but to change the family function. It’s also a family therapy.”

Small children who are still growing can’t go on the same diet as their parents. Moreover, they often lack the motivation to lose weight. The courses therefore need to be structured in a different way, focusing mainly on changing their eating habits and lifestyle:

“They have some tasks for each lesson. For example at the first session they speak about motivation and realistic goals. Then they write in a simple way what they eat. In the first week we don’t want them to change their habits but eat as they are used to. The next week we discuss it. And each week we improve only one point of eating.”

Most experts agree that the main cause behind the growing number of overweight children is the imbalance of energy intake and energy output. Simply speaking, children eat too much and don’t move enough:

“Children spend much more time by sedentary activity than before. Before they came from school and went outside to play with the children. Nowadays they spend most of the time in front of the computer and TV. When they are sitting and watching TV advertisements provoke them to eat much more. And the adverts shown are mostly for unhealthy foods. That is why we speak about a toxic environment.”

I have decided to visit my former primary school at Prague’s district of Pankrac to see the children we are talking about with my own eyes. When I enter the old school gym, everything looks pretty much just like twenty years ago. Most of the children that I see climbing the poles and running around look perfectly healthy. When their lesson ends, I catch up with them in the classroom and I ask their teacher whether she spotted any differences during her long teaching carrier:

“When I compare this situation to twenty years ago, when I started teaching, it is much worse. It’s because of a change in our lifestyle and diet. Children don’t eat healthy foods, because they are attracted by sweets and hamburgers and all kinds of snacks from the school shop. The other thing is the lack of movement. From my point of view, the number of overweight children is growing, especially among the younger ones.”

And what does she think are the main reasons behind the increasing numbers of overweight children?

“Nowadays, mothers work more and come home later. It is easier for them to give their children money to buy something at school. But of course when they can choose between a biscuit or bread, they choose the biscuit. That’s how they get into bad eating habits. The other thing is that they spend a lot of time alone at home in front of a computer, eating chips or sweets.”

When I ask the children about their favourite dishes from the school canteen, it’s true that traditional Czech meals with dumplings and gravy still remain on the top of their list. On the other hand, at the age of eleven, they already seem to distinguish between what is and what isn’t healthy:

Girl: “I like pasta. And I don’t like meat. I like salad or vegetables and I don’t like sausage…”

Boy: “I like svickova of course, and smazeny rizek is good too. The school canteen is better than last year. Some people bought it here and they made it better. They started putting better stuff, like hamburgers, sometimes even burritos… I need to eat healthy food for my sports. It would be bad eating only fat.”

Boy: “Yes, its good food in this school.”

And which food do you prefer?

“I like knedlo-vepro-zelo.”

From what I saw with my own eyes it didn’t look as bad as I had expected. But the data tells a different story. If we don’t manage to set our children in motion, Czechs may be top of a rather unenviable list, becoming the fattest nation in Europe.