Parents must take charge and set a healthy example for their children

Diet aside, how do you encourage young people to get off the sofa and away from their digital devices?

Little Heroes is an exercise group founded by Joy Bunce in Dubai – the aim is to encourage children to exercise and change their eating habits. Ravindranath K / The National
Powered by automated translation

“Firstly, you have permission to parent. You had a child – no one else needs to give you any more qualifications.”

When it comes to fostering healthier habits, parenting coach, author and speaker Andalene Salvesen, aka “Super Granny”, does not mince her words, making it clear that parents need to show their children who is boss.

“One of the biggest issues I see is that parents don’t know how to say no,” she says. “They give their kids anything they want just to keep the peace.”

The South African mother of four and grandmother of 10, has been coaching families for more than a decade.

She is now in Dubai with her Munchkins brand, helping parents tackle a wide range of issues – from tantrums and sleep problems to food concerns. She believes a proper diet is the foundation of all good habits.

“Children don’t have the wisdom – they want what they want and they want it now,” she says.

“For example, they want ice cream, but they don’t understand the consequences of too much sugar, and when their diet is affected they don’t feel or act well.

“When blood sugar spikes and drops due to poor diet, it opens children up to disease. Take cancer for instance. Years ago, this was seen as an old person’s disease. Now we are seeing things such as brain tumours and leukaemia in children as young as 2. Juvenile arthritis has also become more common due to too much acidity in the body, caused by too much sugar, meat and wheat.”

So how do you go about weaning a child off bad dietary habits? Salvesen advocates removing the culprits from your cupboards and educating yourself about healthier alternatives.

“What’s wrong with going cold turkey?” she asks. “Wheat and sugar are addictive. Parents are often just not aware of what is in the foods they consider healthy.

“Take yogurt, for example, which can contain up to seven teaspoons of sugar. Or items such as cereals, milk and bread that also contain high levels of sugar or wheat.”

Angela Burns, an early-years practitioner in Abu Dhabi, agrees that healthy eating is essential from a young age, and has witnessed how additives and junk food affect the brain.

“It is imperative that we fill our children’s bodies with as much vitamins and minerals as possible to give them a good start in life,” says the mum-of-one.

“Encourage children to help with meal preparation, and talk about how different foods affect their bodies. I discuss why we sometimes feel tired when we’ve eaten sugary foods, but if we have fruit and vegetables, I explain that these are brain foods that help our brains to grow. I’ve had this conversation with kids as young as 2 and it works. I also praise children when I see them eating healthily at school. They thrive on this intrinsic motivation.”

Diet aside, how do you then encourage young people to get off the sofa and away from their digital devices?

“The majority of children form habits that are unlikely to change by the time they reach 9 to 10 years old,” says Joy Bunce, a mother of two in Dubai. “This goes for anything – from household chores to exercise. It is down to us to make sure these habits are the ones we want them to take into adulthood.

“Bad diet and a lack of movement is a slippery slope that can lead to physical and mental difficulties as they grow.”

Bunce admits that getting her own sons engaged in physical activity was not easy at first.

“Both our sons are not really sporty,” she says. “Jacob has mild autism and ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder], making team sports an issue, as socially he is awkward.”

To address this, Bunce formed her own exercise groups in Dubai – Little Heroes and Heroes – which respectively are aimed at children between the ages of 6 and 12 and those over 13.

“Our classes are for all, regardless of fitness or challenges,” she says. “They have become really popular with kids who have an association that exercise is to be avoided at all costs. They might ‘forget/lose’ their PE kit – that is Jacob’s favourite trick – or pretend to be sick to opt out.

“We also have the sporty kids who are looking for that extra fitness edge to help with other sports.”

The sessions are designed to gradually change a child’s perception of exercise.

“Our focus is on fitness, form, food, friendship and fun,” says Bunce.

“It includes an hour of quite intense exercise disguised as something that young people enjoy, along with posture correction to combat things like too much screen time and a short meditation.

“The results in my own boys have been astonishing in terms of basic overall fitness – especially in Jacob, where exercise plays a critical role in his behaviour.”

• Little Heroes meet on Fridays and Saturdays at 9am, and Heroes at 10.30am on Fridays, at Sunmarke School, Jumeirah Village Triangle, Dubai. This is the third in our five-part series on preventing and tackling childhood obesity. Next week: How much sugar is too much?