The dangers of a bad child diet
There was a recent article I read about the diet of American football star (and four-time Super Bowl champion) Tom Brady. In it, it stated that the New England Patriots’ quarterback and his wife (the world famous model Gisele Bündchen) follow a strict Paleo-type diet. Clearly, they are a healthy pair and staying fit is necessary for their careers.
What caught my attention was a comment from the journalist who wrote the piece. To paraphrase, it said: “The kids of Brady and Bündchen also adhere to the same diet, which means they won’t have to unlearn bad eating habits later in life.”
And there it is. For all you healthy eaters out there, how many of you became that way later in life, after taking it upon yourself to learn what healthy eating actually is? I can assume the answer is: Most of you.
Too many of us go through the first part of life eating poorly, because the food we are given by our parents and “the system” are unhealthy.
I marvel at how easy it is to feed a child bad food. It’s all down to eating for pleasure – extreme pleasure. Most of what I see children eating now is “brain food”. And I in no way mean it contributes to cognitive health. Rather, “brain food” is food that gives us a happy feeling when we eat it. It lights up the pleasure centres of our brain, and it happens when we take in sugar and grains and chemically enhanced processed foods that spike our blood sugars.
And these foods are generally part of every meal our children eat nowadays. Think about breakfast: How many of you parents are giving your children cereal? Most are literally poison. High in grain content, high in sugar, and full of chemicals. Just to name a few popular ones: Froot Loops, Trix, Captain Crunch, Coco Pops. The names themselves give me the shivers. I won’t even bother to shock you with the sugar content of these. It’s simply stupid.
Now when I say above “how easy it is to feed a child bad food”, what I mean is that giving children these types of foods is the easiest way to get them to eat something. If I give a child those cereals or a piece of toast with jam or Nutella, they love it, and there is no question that they will eat it all up. Now if I suddenly surprise them with a breakfast of hardboiled eggs and some sliced carrots and raw almonds, what do you think is going to happen? They will say it does not taste good.
And of course they are right. It tastes lousy in comparison to what they usually eat, because the brain’s pleasure centres are no longer lighting up – which again is what those sugars and grains and processed foods do. To put it another way, these bad foods work like drugs, whereas healthy foods have no such effect. Healthy foods for the most part keep our blood sugar levels very stable, and if we are used to eating those “blood sugar spiking” foods, then anything else is, well, boring in comparison. And what ends up happening is that our children end up eating for taste – or rather, “the high” – every time.
The point of this rant? Parents have a huge responsibility on the nutrition front from day one. And it’s not just about making sure our kids don’t have to unlearn bad habits later. It’s about ensuring we don’t damage them permanently, because yes, that can happen. Once diabetes gets too far along it is irreversible (and it is estimated that one in three children born today will develop the disease); high blood pressure in children is so common nowadays (caused by sugar, people), and damage to the arteries as a result is indeed evident in the young; obesity is after a certain stage almost impossible to cure; and so on.
In the UAE 40% of children aged 11-19 are overweight or obese
Let’s get a different perspective on the situation with this simple fact: a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that children born after the year 2000 will probably, for the first time in human history, have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
So don’t think your children are immune to the effects of bad food just because they are young. Their bodies do not bounce back like you may think or hope. Our responsibility is clear here, and heightened by the fact that children and teenagers are very unlikely to consider the long-term impact that their diet is having on their health, so it really is up to us.
In the UAE we are failing here. Around 20% of children aged 6-10 and 40% aged 11-19 are overweight or obese, and the country’s overall obesity level is twice the global average. Anywhere from 40%-50% of our population is diabetic or pre-diabetic (many unaware or not officially diagnosed), and this is no longer just an adult disease.
I’m going to now highlight just three keyways food damages the young. There are many many more examples I could give, but the below heavy hitters will give you an idea. Following that, I’m going to give some advice for how we can better manage the nutrition of our children.
It’s bad for their brains: A study in the British Medical Journal recently found a diet high in sugar and processed foods in early childhood may result in a lower IQ later life, while a diet rich in healthy nutrients and vitamins can have the opposite effect. The study went on to suggest that a child’s early diet plays a role in shaping the development of the brain which impacts on behaviour and learning performance as they get older. A separate study by The University of Southern California yielded similar results, finding that a lack of zinc, iron, vitamin B and protein in early life (which you will get from a nicely balanced Paleo Diet) resulted in more instances of aggressive and antisocial behaviour in late childhood and the early teenage years.
It could lead to irreversible obesity: Scientists at the University of Michigan have found evidence to suggest that being obese for a long period of time can “flip a switch” that in essence resets normal body weight to be irreversibly higher – with children most at risk. According to the research, if obesity is allowed to continue, the body re-programs itself to a heavier set weight. While the exact reasons for this are unknown, it is thought to be one the reasons why many long-term obese people have trouble shifting excess weight. The American publication The Atlantic went one further in their interpretation of similar research by the Duke National University of Singapore, concluding that obese children almost certainly become obese adults, and whatever damage occurs when children are young is almost always irreversible. Just remember, obesity is not just appearance, but the precursor to a lifetime of potential diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure (obese children are three times more likely to have high blood pressure than normal weight children), heart disease, cancer, and many more.
Weaker immune system: A child’s immune system is underdeveloped, making them more prone to infection than adults. Many foods such as fish, fresh fruit and vegetables help to account for this by giving the immune system a boost. Foods such as sugar, flour, sweeteners and processed foods, however, have the opposite effect. Now here’s a frightening fact: Immune system weakness goes much further than simply making us more susceptible to colds and flus and other viruses. In fact, a poor immune system can put us at higher risk for serious non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, cancer, autoimmune, Alzheimer’s, and others (which are the cause of half of all deaths in some Gulf countries).
How to get our kids eating healthy
As a parent, your first step is to educate yourself about nutrition. Read up on the Paleo Diet (you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a free digital copy of my book on the subject), and also read up on varied topics to get a solid understanding of how nutrition and overall health are linked.
If you are entirely new to the subject, your findings will surprise you greatly. It may take you a bit of time to separate the good information from the misinformation (there is, unfortunately, tons of the latter), but I promise it will all become very clear if you stick to the learning process, with so much of it is based on common sense. Because sugar truly is the ultimate evil when it comes to unhealthy eating, I want you to start at the site Sugarscience.org, as it provides very clear information on the link between sugar and disease.
From there it is about putting all of that into practice, and this starts with what you eat at home. A “do as I say, not as I do” approach will simply not work when it comes to healthy eating, so you must take the lead and set the right example – essentially redefining your entire home diet for the adults of the house as well. If you take this seriously, you’ll probably over time end up ditching about 80% of the foods that are currently in your fridge or kitchen cupboards.
You will also have to educate your children. Have open discussions with them about good and bad foods. Once you and your children are more aware, having them join you during grocery shopping is a very effective way to work on overall healthy eating together. Let them play a part in planning for good nutrition by choosing what to put in the shopping cart.
One thing I will caution on are scare tactics. We do not want our kids to be afraid of eating. We want them to understand very clearly that whole, natural foods (again, such as those you find in a Paleo-type diet) are what we want to eat as often as possible, and those processed foods, grains, sugary foods, etc. should be avoided as much as possible. They need to know they do not have to fear portion size or resort to calorie counting when it comes to eating well.
I will add here, though, that we have to be realistic. Those bad foods are going to be served up quite a lot in school, at friends’ homes, at birthday parties, etc., and that is simply part of life nowadays. While in an ideal world we would never even be tempted by such foods, in our world they are, for now, everywhere, and so it is about moderation (though I will stress “extreme” moderation). Everyone has to find their own balance here. For an adult with extreme discipline it is very easy to avoid these foods, but for children it is another story, and we have to be aware of that. Let them know these are “treats” or “cheats” and that is fine occasionally, but they have to use their best judgment.
The responsible parent has to go out of his or her way to pack healthy alternatives for their children to take with them where appropriate. Obviously you do not send your child off to a birthday party with a box full of carrots and hardboiled eggs, but to school or day excursions with friends you can send them off with a container of healthy snacks to help them keep hunger at bay.
And let me end with a note on responsible parenting and the following story: I continue to see clients who ask me what they can do about their overweight children. When I ask them what they are feeding their kids, 99% of the time the solution is instantly revealed. In other words, they have to change the diet, and drastically at that. Last week I saw the fattest person I have ever seen in the history of practising medicine. To be specific, she had a body fat percentage of 55. She was accompanied by her concerned mother, because she was only 11 years old.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.