Not So Happy Meals

January 21, 2011 in Health, Nutrition by Mary Ireland

According to the National Institute of Health, it is becoming more evident that early life events play a powerful role in influencing later susceptibility to certain chronic disease. Researchers in the area of origins of health and disease are finding that pre-natal and early childhood environmental factors influence the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity as adults.

A study by Raylene Reimer of the University of Calgary found a connection between an adult's tendency to put on weight and early childhood diet. According to Reimer, the food we eat influences gene expression -- meaning that our diets influence the genes that determine how our bodies use and store nutrients. In Dr. Reimer’s study, rats that were divided into three groups, each group was fed a different diet: high protein, high fiber and a control diet. During adulthood, all groups were all switched to a high fat, high sugar diet -- similar to a Western diet. The high protein diet group gained much more weight and body fat than the high fiber group which gained the least amount of weight and body fat.

This news is disconcerting, especially when study results show how effective advertising and product branding are with kids. Study results published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine indicate that preschoolers found food in McDonald’s packaging tasted better than the same food opened from similar but unbranded packaging. How are preschoolers even exposed to the advertising? TV, and family trips to McDonald's I suppose. The results of this research is a very good reason to get kids away from the TV. Parents and caregivers do have control over what children eat, especially in early childhood. It is actually the responsibility of parents and caregivers to provide nutritious food to children. This may not be easy. In fact, a survey conducted for the Jolly Green Giant Corp. found that 25 of every 100 parents think it is more likely for their child to become president than to eat their recommended daily amount of vegetables. If you have served vegetables and healthy foods but the children don’t like them, try Dr. Grandma’s Tips for Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables. Doctor Grandma’s tips and the best that I found.

Working with young children to eat a variety of healthy food is important because a child’s taste for food is established early. This is not to say that an older child won’t try anything new, but if a child is not eating vegetables and a variety of healthy foods, it becomes much more difficult to change eating habits. If children grow up on a diet high in sugar, salt and fat – foods that have been designed to be addictive, the likelihood is low of them becoming teenagers and adults who have healthy eating habits. The impact is significant, not only in longer term health, but the negative effects can be seen in teenagers. A new study from Emory University correlated heart disease factors such as high LDL, low HDL, and high triglyceride levels with increased consumption of added sugar in the diets of teens. It is alarming that in this study of 2,157 teens from 1999 to 2004, the average daily consumption of added sugars was 21.4 percent of total energy. (Remember that the American Heart Association recommends 5% for adults.) The study found that the more sugar a teen consumed, the more of an increase in the above listed factors for cardiovascular disease.

In addition, research from the University of California, San Francisco, found that teenagers in the study consumed over 3,800mg of salt per day, more on average than any other age group. The maximum adult recommendation is 2,300mg per day. Using computer modeling, the study showed that reducing salt consumption by 1300mg per day would have significant health benefits by the time the teenagers reached the age of 50. The health benefits included a seven to 12 percent reduction in coronary heart disease, an eight to 14 percent reduction in heart attacks, a five to eight percent reduction in stroke, and a five to nine percent reduction in death from any cause. Cutting back on salt will have an immediate effect to help reduce hypertension, a condition, once rare, now seen with increasing frequency particularly during adolescence. To help with salt reduction, see Dr. Grandma’s Tips for Cutting Back on Salt.

It really is time that we educate children how to eat by providing good food for them to eat, setting examples by eating good food ourselves and making sure they eat well. Please note that setting a good example is the most effective way to change a child's eating habits. Although we may be able to overcome poor childhood diets by affecting our genes through a healthy diet (see What We Eat Impacts Our Genes), the research has not been done and we don’t know the full impact of poor childhood nutrition. The Mediterranean style of eating that Dr. Grandma advocates – with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains – provides the nutrients necessary for children and adults. Don’t delay, start a healthier future for you and your family today.