Healthy eating for children is starting to have the focus it needs but only because we have finally woken up to the childhood obesity crisis in our country;
- Britain has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and, shockingly, we now have a higher proportion of children classed as obese at the age of 11 than in the US
- Nearly 40 per cent of children aged 10 and 11 in London are overweight or obese
There’s no doubt that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb that, if ignored, could do irreparable damage to the health, educational achievements and future opportunities available to millions of children in the UK. Childhood obesity is being tackled in other European countries, such as Seinäjoki childhood obesity has reduced by 50% and it’s time we learnt from their experiences and took action in the UK.
The concept of Sano was born out of the need to create a learning and eating experience to help people irrespective of their budget or socio-demographic background. We aim to cut through the noise and confusion of what is a healthy diet and empower people to take more control of their own health through recipe creation, affordable healthy eating and cooking experiences. This need is even more relevant today than it was 3 years ago when we launched the business. The partnership we have with the College of Medicine is aligned with our mission and values and gives us the opportunity to share with an even wider audience, including medical professionals and those receiving healthcare. Since becoming the Lead the Food Programme for the College last year, it was pretty clear that healthy eating for children was going to be a big part of the agenda.
In addition, our personal journey to Sano started with our children and the need to find non-medical solutions for their early years’ health issues once conventional medicine had failed.
Childhood obesity is a very complex issue arising from many factors including cultural, socio-demographic, migration to cities as well as the more obvious impacts of media and fast junk food. The elephant in the room has to be big food industry which has completely altered the food environment so that junk and unhealthy foods are the cheapest, most ubiquitous, heavily marketed, most difficult to resist and socially acceptable. One of the most influential leaders in Social Prescribing, Sir Sam Everington (Bromley By-Bow) mentioned recently to me that it got to a stage of recommending MacDonalds as a healthier option to patients rather than frequenting a renowned stretch of junk food outlets in Tower Hamlets.
I have had the opportunity to listen to what other countries are doing at the Childhood Obesity Conference in Finland in March. I also have met with one of, if not the, leading expert in child eating disorders in the UK – Dr Gillian Harris who knows pretty much everything in terms of healthy eating for children, how to develop the right behaviours from weaning to developing healthy taste preferences in young children through to how to cope with disorders and food refusal.
So what can we as parents start to learn about this? For me, the starting point is this.
- It is a well-known fact that poor diet contributes to more disease than inactivity, smoking and alcohol combined – think about that legacy if poor diet and junk food become cast as a child’s taste preference when they are young and the huge difficulty of reversing this later on
- We all want children to have a future that our country can be proud of. But right now, our communities are struggling to provide the services necessary to keep children happy, healthy and safe. Unlike European and Asia countries at the Conference, since 2010 the Government has significantly reduced the funding available in real terms to local councils to support children, at a time when rising numbers of children and young people are in need of help. The 60% cut in Sure Start and youth services are a clear example of this. England now spends nearly half of its entire children’s services budget on 73,000 children in the care system, leaving the other half for the remaining 11.7 million kids.
- Children’s school meals are a key part of the equation. The Kyushoku system was introduced in Japan in the 1950s to ensure that children did not have to suffer the dietary privations of the immediate postwar years. More than seven decades on, the programme is credited with contributing to Japan’s impressive life expectancy and obesity levels, in children and adults, below those of other OECD nations, including the UK. It offers a uniform menu which changes weekly to all children in each school five days a week, unlike the cafeteria-style school lunches often found in the US and UK. The system helps avoid an imbalance in nutritional intakes and the lack of choice helps hide disparities in the children’s socioeconomic background that might be evident in packed lunches.
- We have got to invest more in child services in this country and this is a big opportunity for the College of Medicine and NHS England to grasp under the momentum now building with Social Prescribing in the UK.
- Messages about obesity and health problems in a distant, abstract future for us or our children result in us doing nothing today.
- Its not just physical health – half of all mental-health disorders set in by age 14. UK teenagers are eating multiple servings of junk food every day.
- Unlike most risk factors for depression (including genes, poverty, trauma and abuse), diet is something we can modify, yet only about 10% of the population eat an adequately healthy diet
- One of the implications for this is that although messages about obesity and health problems may be ignored by children and their parents, they might actually act on the knowledge that these same foods could be making them unhappy today, here and now
- Developing the right healthy taste preferences has to be through nutrition education. Preferably through experiential learning for children with their parents in attendance. This is where children can do messy play with food (they are more likely to eat it if they can feel it, play with different textures), learn where the food comes from, what it does for their bodies and how to cook it. Why is this method proven through fact and results not used to develop the right start for children?
- Encourages families to be more adventurous and resourceful with ingredients and eat together as a social experience
- Enables a better, more understanding and balanced relationship with diet, food and health
- Empowers responsible, healthy, sustainable food choices, for life.
It may sound very basic and simple but its a massive gap today in what most children experience in the early years. It’s the same with adults and our diet. There are no quick fixes or food trends dressed up as panaceas (it’s not about “clean eating”). Although diets may vary from country to country (e.g. the Mediterranean diet versus Japanese etc.), regardless of where you live, eating healthy diets are the ones based on eating real, whole unprocessed foods.
I’ll end with a real example from Dr Gillian Harris. A mother was experiencing difficulties in converting their child from baby food to solids and Gillian asked her to consider blending the solids first and starting there. The parent looked concerned and then said to Gillian – I don’t have a blender but if I get one I don’t think it will fit a pizza?
CEO Sano, Food Lead College Of Medicine