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…education is of three kinds: material, human and spiritual. Material education aims at the growth and development of the body, and consists in securing its sustenance and obtaining the means of its ease and comfort. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 9.

The Baha’i writings emphasize the importance of material education, and the growth and development of the human body. That has become even more important today, when childhood obesity increasingly causes premature onset of illness, including diabetes and heart disease. In fact, many overweight children have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood glucose.

Based on World Health Organization statistics, the number of overweight or obese infants and young children under the age of five increased globally from 32 million in 1990 to 42 million in 2013. The majority of these children live in developing countries, where the rate of increase has been more than 30% higher than that of developed countries. Studies have shown that overweight and obese children are likely to remain obese into their adulthood, and more likely to develop serious health complications from chronic diseases. According to the U.S Surgeon General’s report, obese children also tend to have poor performance in school and are at greater risk of social and psychological problems.

Abdu’l-Baha illustrates the essential nature of taking proper care of children from the early days of their life:

Unless the child, in his earliest years, be carefully tended, whether in a material or a spiritual sense, whether as to his physical health or his education, it will prove extremely difficult to effect any changes later on. For example, if a child is not properly cared for at the beginning of life, so that he doth not develop a sound body and his constitution doth not flourish as it ought, his body will remain feeble, and whatever is done afterward will take little effect. This matter of protecting the health of the child is essential, for sound health leadeth to insights and sense perceptions, and then the child, as he learneth sciences, arts, skills, and the civilities of life, will duly develop his powers…. – from a previously untranslated Tablet by Abdu’l-Baha, Health, Healing and Nutrition Compilation, # 998.

In some cultures, myths such as “a fat baby is a healthy baby” may mislead families into over-feeding their children. In addition, the digitalized world and increased sedentary activities have reduced children’s opportunities for physical activity and healthy play. Being overweight or obese gives children fewer opportunities to participate in group physical activities. Consequently, they become even less physically active, which tends to make them more overweight over time.

Children-exercisingAccording to a 1992 Johns Hopkins University report “School and Family Partnership,” well-nourished children perform better in school, have increased concentration, earn higher grades and test scores, enroll in more advanced programs, attend school regularly, have better social skills and improved behavior and adapt well in to school. According to a Centers for Disease Control report in 2013, good nutrition helps promote health and wellness of the entire child’s body and prevents obesity and adverse outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, bone and joint problems, sleeping disorders, depression and low self-esteem.

Every part of the environment in which children are conceived, born and raised can be a risk factor to becoming overweight or obese. During pregnancy, gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes arising during pregnancy, may result in high birth weight and increased risk of obesity later in life. Breastfeeding during the first six months has proven critical to help prevent infants from becoming overweight or obese. Making healthy choices of foods for infants and young children are very important, as food preferences are set in early life. Feeding them energy dense food high in fat, sugar and salt is a main contributor to childhood obesity. School-aged children and adolescents should decrease their energy intake from total fats and sugars and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts. They also should engage in at least an hour of daily physical activity.

These tips can help not only your children’s physical and mental health, but their spiritual health, as well. Overweight and obesity is mostly preventable. Policies, environment, schools and communities all play a significant role in forming parent’s and children’s choices. Help your child avoid future physical, mental and spiritual problems by choosing healthy foods and encouraging them to get regular physical activity.

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