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Children and Young People's Diets

Children and Young People's Diet

Dr Mary Rudolf, a community pediatrician from Leeds, discovered that a massive 14% of children studied of Primary School age were obese.   This figure can increase with age and although obese children do not suffer huge health problems whilst young, they are greatly at risk from adult killer illnesses in later life and the issue continues to concern many parents. 

However, there is still much unknown; is obesity diet or as more recently discovered about genetic pre-disposition?  Further, can an active lifestyle prevent children becoming overweight?  Conversely, how much of a restricted diet should inactive or less active children have to ensure they maintain a healthy body weight? 

Besides concerns about childhood obesity there is also a lot of discussion amongst parents about increases in food intolerances and severe food allergies in the current childhood generation.  Pregnant women are told to avoid eating nuts in pregnancy but the causes of severe food intolerances are still largely unknown.

On the other hand, good food habits can have positive effects.  What a woman eats in pregnancy is a significant factor in determining the future health of the baby – we were amazed to discover more so than what is fed to the baby in the first months of life!  Breast-feeding again positively contributes to the long-term health and emotional well-being of the baby.   There is research to show that parents who themselves follow fad diets, have low self esteem about their bodies and eat unhealthy are unfortunately at risk of passing on these to their children.  Families with a healthy, balanced view of food are likely to pass that view to their children.

There have long been claims that certain eating habits can lead to greater concentration and achievement in school.  Eating a healthy breakfast (ideally with their family for social development) and drinking plenty of water for example are both linked to better concentration and mental agility in children and young people.  We can support this claim as teachers and parents ourselves.  Young children show bad temperament when hungry or thirsty.  When physical needs are unmet, higher order thinking cannot take place as effectively.  This has actually been a theory for years in childhood psychology books.  There is general acceptance that fish oil supplements and omega 3 can help overcome more severe concentration difficulties such as ADHD but the degree to which this is proven is still scientific debate.  Vitamin supplements are supposed to be able to aid concentration too. 

Then there is the dilemma of how to manage the over advertising of unhealthy food in the media.  You can protect your children from junk until they start school but how do you teach children balance without becoming overbearing over what your children eat.  I found my daughter eating chocolate under the table one morning having woken up early!  It is always a worry!

Thankfully most schools are now “healthy schools” or working towards “healthy school” status – a move which happened long before Jamie Oliver’s mission.  School dinners are healthier, fizzy drinks and unhealthy snacks are banned or discouraged and exercise in schools is on the increase.
So in order to put our minds at rest, we have researched everything parents should know about feeding their children. How easy is it to feed your children on a diet recommended by the experts?  Although it may not be cheap, changed priorities and some money saving steps can help.  It certainly seems to us easier and more obvious than we might have expected.   First what should we try to get our children to eat and what should we avoid?

In order for children to have a balanced diet, they should eat food from the five basic food groups:
1. Fruit and vegetables – these provide fibre, vitamins, minerals, and are a source of antioxidants.
2. Bread, other cereals and potatoes – these provide energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
3. Milk and dairy foods – these provide calcium for healthy bones and teeth, protein for growth, plus vitamins and minerals.
4. Meat, fish and alternatives – these provide protein, vitamins, and minerals, especially iron.
5. Foods containing fats and sugars.

The fifth group can contain such things as biscuits, cakes, pastries, fizzy drinks, chocolate, fast foods, sweets and crisps. All quite tempting but they all add little nutritional value. That said, there are experts who feel that despite that fact, parents who insist that their children adhere rigidly to a healthy eating diet may possibly be causing psychological problems with food. It is generally felt that a mixture of mostly healthy foods with a small proportion coming from this fifth group is more likely to promote a healthy regard for diet.

No single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to be healthy and function efficiently. The nutritional value of a person's diet depends on the overall mixture, or balance, of foods that is eaten over a period of time, as well as on the needs of the individual. That is why a balanced diet is one that is likely to include a large number or variety of foods, so adequate intakes of all the nutrients are achieved.

The proportions from each of the five food groups will vary but in essence the majority should come from the  groups 1 & 2 (about 30% for each), next is group 3 (about 20%), then group 4 (about 15%) and lastly group 5 (about 5%). These are very broad guidelines and the make up is dependent upon age, sex, lifestyle and any number of similar factors. The important message is that a balance is important.

Research undertaken in the late 1990’s was suggesting then that the diet of children in the 1950’s was far healthier than that enjoyed by children of the 1990’s.  Children of the time ate more bread and milk, increasing their fibre and calcium intake, drank few soft drinks, deriving less of their energy from sugar, got most of their vitamin C from vegetables rather than juices and drinks, ate more red meat, giving them more iron and had more fat in their diet. Although the fat and calorific intake of these 1950’s children was higher, they were also more active.

So avoiding chocolate and “treats” need not be the principle priority – eating a balanced, healthy diet for most of the time is more important. 

We have also started feeding our children  more organic food especially from the food groups we believe carry more residual pesticides.  We prioritise organic milk (higher in lots of things that are good!), buy meat without routine hormonal and growth promoters though not organic and as many organic vegetables as possible.  We use our pesticide guide to help us decide which to buy non-organic.  We also buy organic pasta, tinned tomatoes and other grocery items more because they taste so much better!  We limit processed foods, cordials, ban fizzy drinks, and instead cook as much as we can, drink lots of water, pure local apple juice or smoothies, which our children think are the best anyway.   These purchasing decisions do cost us more sometimes.  It is however an investment with a good return - healthy, active children who enjoy their food and peace of mind that any bad health will not have been partly our fault!

Good links

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