Early years of eating

Joanne Crovini says a good diet before the age of four will tackle obesity epidemic

As mum to a fussy toddler I know how hard it is to get good food into your children. One day they like peas; the next day peas will not pass their lips. I think too many of us panic that our kids aren’t eating and give them something else – anything as long as they eat it. That maternal instinct to provide combined with the overwhelming array of products marketed at kids makes it difficult to know what to feed them. And of course 600,000 pre-school children in Wales and England are in nursery daily and so we lose control over what they eat.

Statistics reveal that less than 10 per cent of our children meet government healthy eating guidelines in their daily diet.  Added to that, a shocking 30 per cent of children age 2 to 15 are now overweight or obese. That means many of our children are overweight before even starting school. The early years of eating are the formative years for children, they develop their likes and dislikes from those first tastes. If they’re not presented with vegetables like broccoli and green beans early on it’ll be much more difficult to get them to eat it later.

Sadly, being overweight or obese as a child inevitably leads to being more overweight and obese later in life. There are many proven health risks such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, increased risk of colon and other cancers, osteoarthritis and back pain. Ten times more children are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year now than in 2002. The problem is the unknown – this is the first generation where children have been overweight, with chronic illnesses from such a young age and we don’t know what the cumulative effect will be.

As well as the physical risks overweight children may be subject to social and psychological issues, such as bullying, low self-esteem and depression. An overweight child that I worked with told me that he had no friends because of his weight. He was still in primary school and although he wanted to do something about his weight he didn’t know how and neither did his parents.

Children are also suffering more now from ADHD and other behavioural problems as well as eczema and asthma being on the increase.  Diet plays a role in all of these conditions, but many people have no idea that is the case.

So what’s the answer?

There are many programmes already running and more parents are becoming concerned about what they feed their children, but there is still more that can be done.

For children who are already overweight there are initiatives such as The MEND programme that works with overweight children and their families. It aims to re-educate by means of discussion, practical sessions and exercise, rather than just giving a list of dos and don’ts.  From my experience it’s loads of fun for the kids as well as teaching them important nutrition basics.

I’m sure we were all shocked when we saw Jamie Oliver on TV showing school children vegetables such as courgettes that a lot of them couldn’t identify.  He has gone on to do wonders for school dinners but I think we need to focus on nursery food as well. Children who eat well before the age of four will be more inclined to do so later in life, as they already know more about foods.  The Soil Association runs The Food For Life Award, which encourages schools and nurseries to work towards healthier menus. It also advocates having a vegetable patch and getting children involved in growing their own food. This is great but we still need guidelines that prevent crisps, biscuits, chips and chocolate being served to children daily.

Gardening projects have also been shown to be beneficial. One study took a group of 100 children and involved them in growing for food for just half an hour a week.  The children tasted a new fruit or vegetable each week and were encouraged to touch and smell the foods before eating them.  Not only did these children have fun, they increased the list of fruit and vegetables they were happy to try. An additional benefit is that these children took home recipes and activities so that the family became involved and both siblings and parents tried new foods as well. Funding to encourage projects like this would go a long way to tackling the obesity problem at source, rather than spending millions tackling obesity and chronic disease later in life.

There is also a lot we can do with our children at home to improve their diets:

  • Give them new foods to try and don’t give up if they won’t eat it the first time – try at least ten times before giving up and trying again in a few months.
  • Get them involved in shopping and cooking and allow them to make simple choices, such as ‘banana or Satsuma?’
  • If small children won’t eat their food they may not be hungry, so don’t panic and offer them sweet treats.
  • Read labels and don’t believe because a products is marketed at children and claims to be healthy that it actually is.
  • Plant some vegetables and get kids involved with growing them – if you haven’t got a garden a window box is a good start.

We all want our children to have the best start in life and for me feeding them well is the essence. Food is our fuel and everything else works better when we eat well.

Joanne Crovini is a nutritional therapist working in Cardiff with children and adults.

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