As large as life

10/04/2017 - 07:03
The eating habits we learn as toddlers and children go on to influence the rest of our lives. Now the Children’s Food Trust has launched a campaign to drive home the message that getting it wrong at an early age can lead to a lifelong battle against poor health and disease. David Foad reports.

It can take as few as 25 calories a day over your daily requirement to carry you, over time, from a healthy weight to being overweight and on to obese. Those surplus calories can be consumed in as few as four or five ‘shoestring’ French fries.

A highly relevant example was seen in the Children’s Food Trust’s (CFT) recent ‘State of the Nation’ report that showed McDonalds is where the UK’s parents most often eat out with their children – the first choice of 43% of those surveyed.

This stark, calorific message comes from Professor Russell Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

He says: “Obesity is one of the great epidemics of the modern age, alongside mental health. The difference is that obesity will impact most heavily on the next generation.

“The burden of disease in the West has shifted to non-communicable diseases, and much of this relates to our behaviours. We have a responsibility for them, but our children do not and they are the ultimate victims of our choices.

“Let us be clear – obesity is rarely the result of overeating or simple, genetic problems. It is caused mostly by ordinary parents and everyday people like you and I making the wrong decisions.

“These are usually small decisions over a long period of time. It could be as little as 25 calories too much a day in the diets of children, but this positive energy balance ends up in obesity.”

Viner was speaking at the House of Commons at the launch of a campaign done jointly by the CFT, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

CFT chief executive Linda Cregan says: “What’s clear from our research is that parents don’t want to pass on to their children the health impact of poor diet that we’re experiencing now.

“That means policymaking for the long term, and solutions tht go beyond party politics and the leaders of the moment. If we can get children eating better now, they’ll be healthier adults by the time they’re 30, 40 and beyond.

“But if we don’t act, we’re condemning another generation to a future in which their health is literally being eaten away.”

The campaign, titled ‘Meet Sam’, focuses on what it calls ‘The Seven Ages of Unhealthy Eating’.

Cregan says: “Sam is an ordinary child, like many you may know. His story warns of how the diet of today’s toddlers could cripple the health of tomorrow’s adults.

“It looks at how Sam eats from the age of two to 62 – showing how the eating habits he learns in childhood chip away at his health through his life.

“From a daily bag of crisps and a dislike of ‘plain’ water, to the expectation of a sweet pudding after every meal and the idea that if you exercise enough it doesn’t matter what you eat, Sam’s story echoes that of many children across the UK.

“I need to emphasise the enormity of this, a normal kid with an environment around him that constrained his choices through his parents, school, friends, work and family.

“It’s not an easy message that the diet of our toddlers today could cripple the pensioners of tomorrow, but we need to get it out and spread it.”

She says that everyone had a role to play in influencing how children eat, from public health professionals or policymakers, those working in a nursery, school or local authority, health visitors, doctors, nurses or dentists, a maker or retailer of food and drinks, or a parent doing their best to feed your child well.

“This is our plea: take Sam with you, and remember his story in your decision-making,” she continues.

“When you’re having to prioritise how your budget’s spent on public health work in your local area; when you’re developing a new food product for kids; when you’re working on policy to improve children’s life chances; when you’re trying to make sure children in your school are meeting their full potential, when you’re doing your weekly shop – use Sam’s story to inform your thinking.

“Unless we all start putting children’s health first, Sam’s story could be every child’s story.”

Professor Mary Fewtrell of the RCPCH added: “Obesity is the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today – Sam’s story shows how easy it is to get into bad habits early.

“It also shows how the environment in which our children grow up affects their food choices.

“From junk food advertising online and during popular family TV shows, to high-fat, sugar and salt food being cheaper than healthier alternatives, we have to change the environment to help parents and children. The healthy choice should be the easy choice.”

Sam’s story is told in a series of seven snapshots of how he eats from two to 62 years old.

It starts with Sam eating what many of us would class as a fairly normal diet. His parents cook homemade dinners most nights of the week but he has a big appetite, so he often has bigger portions than he needs or second helpings.

But he has honey on his hot oat cereal for breakfast, diluted squash drinks through the day, a digestive biscuit every day as a little treat, and a fruit pudding from a toddler range every other day.

Dr Mary Fewtrell, professor of paediatric nutrition and honorary consultant paediatrician at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, London, comments: “Sam’s already consuming too much sugar on a typical day. This isn’t good for developing teeth and his dentist finds he already has some signs of tooth decay when he’s taken for a routine check-up.”

By the time he is 12, he is a little on the heavy side, starting his typical day with a bowl of chocolate-flavoured toasted rice and two glasses of blackcurrant squash. He has a cheese sandwich on white bread with grapes, a packet of cheesy puffs crisps and a cereal bar with a fruit juice drink for lunch; and home-made cottage pie (and seconds) with peas, followed by ice cream for pudding at dinner.

Unknowingly, he is consuming more than twice the amount of sugar recommended for his age most days, with squash drinks and cereal bars.

Fewtrell adds: “Eating more calories than Sam needs, even just a small amount extra a day, is gradually leading him to put on excess body fat.”

By the time he is 32 years old, he is carrying a few extra stone than he was in his 20s and is now classified as overweight. He’s stopped being as active because of the demands of his busy job and family life. He’s developed a bit of a sweet tooth, and likes to ‘treat’ himself with chocolate bars and cake.

At 42 years old, he’s developed Type 2 diabetes although medication keeps it under control, he is feeling quite depressed about his health.

By the time he reaches 62, he is keen to retire soon and spend a bit more time with his grandchildren, which is spurring him on to lose more weight. As well as continuing his treatment for high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, he’s been diagnosed with bowel cancer – one of the most common cancers in the UK and one of the cancers with more UK cases linked to being overweight or obese.

Fewtrell concludes: “Fortunately, Sam’s cancer was detected early and he is told he should make a full recovery after treatment.

“He is given advice and support by his cancer care team on the importance of a healthy lifestyle and realises that it’s now even more important that he makes a serious effort to lose weight, improve his diet and be more physically active if he wants to enjoy a healthy and long retirement.

“Looking back, Sam can see how the seeds are sown in childhood for the way we eat for life.”

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