“We cannot overstate the importance of children and young people’s health. Children are among the most vulnerable members of society and a healthy start in life is at the heart of a happy childhood and the ability of every young person to achieve their potential and grow up well prepared for the challenges of adolescence and adulthood.”
– Healthy lives, brighter futures, 2009
Our children represent our future and as such they are our most precious resource. Making sure that they grow up healthy should be a major concern to everyone, everywhere.
Reports on Child Health and Wellbeing
However a growing number of reports and studies have raised concerns regarding child health across the world.
In a report by UNICEF in 2013 which looked at 29 of the worlds most advanced economies child wellbeing was found to be inadequate in all aspects that it examined. In this report many of the wealthiest countries in the world including the UK, France, Spain, Canada and the US ranked poorly in terms of child health and wellbeing.
A further report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in 2017 which studied 25 health indicators including diabetes and asthma as well as obesity and mortality, highlighted that child health and wellbeing in the UK is now falling behind many of its European neighbours. Over the past 100 years child health in the UK has shown great improvement however since the 1990s progress has slowed.
Obesity Has More Than Doubled
The World Health Organisation reported that worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2014. Childhood obesity is associated with adult obesity. Children who are overweight are more likely to have severe obesity in adulthood. It’s also interesting to note that maternal nutritional status before and during pregnancy has been shown to affect the unborn baby and appears to be linked with a higher risk of obesity in later life.
In the US, between the years of 2013 – 2014, over 1 in 6 children aged 6-11 years were reported as obese. Various bodies have estimated the annual health care costs of childhood obesity-related illness at around $14bn in direct medical costs which equates to nearly 1.5% of the annual medical spending in the US.
In England, Scotland and Wales more than one in five children in the first year of primary school were recorded as being overweight or obese. Nearly a third (31%) of children aged 2–15 are overweight or obese. There has been little improvement in these figures over the last decade. In 2013 the direct cost of obesity to the NHS was estimated to be around £4.2bn a year.
Being overweight and obese can lead to a significantly increased risk of serious health problems including an increase in blood pressure which can cause coronary heart disease (CHD). High blood pressure is the leading cause of strokes. Excess weight also increases the chances of developing other problems, including high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, cancer and early osteoarthritis in later life.
Diabetes On The Rise
Diabetes mellitus, a lifelong condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high, is an increasingly common autoimmune condition which is presenting itself in children and young people.
Based on diabetes data from 20 centres in 17 European countries during the period 1989-2003, Diabetes.org.uk predicts that cases of Type 1 diabetes in children under five years across Europe will double by 2020 if present trends continue and numbers of cases in children under 15 years are also predicted to rise by 70% from 94,000 in 2005 to 160,000 in 2020.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association called the “SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth Study”, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), included 11,244 young people aged 0-19 with type 1 diabetes and 2,846 aged 10-19 with type 2 from different regions of the US. It found that from 2002 to 2012, incidence, or the rate of new diagnosed cases of type 1 diabetes in youth increased by about 1.8 percent each year.
Diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation.
One of the most common chronic childhood diseases responsible for the largest number of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost is Asthma.
In the UK 1.1 million children (1 in 11) suffer from Asthma. The UK still has some of the highest rates in Europe and on average 3 people a day die from asthma.
In the US the number of people with asthma continues to grow. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 8.6% of children have asthma. For the period 2008–2010, asthma prevalence was higher among children than adults.
Worldwide over 300 million people suffer from asthma and 250,000 deaths are attributed to the disease each year. It’s estimated that the number of people with asthma will grow by more than 100 million by 2025.
What Can We Do?
Given the amount of research in this area there is little doubt that diet plays a major role in a child’s intellectual and health development.
Studies across the world have concluded that good nutrition is the foundation of good health. Childhood is the best time to establish good health and nutritional habits. The food a child eats in their early years can influence their dietary habits later in life, so it’s important to instil good habits and a healthy relationship with food from a very early age.
Currently there is no dietary recommendation of global utility available for children and adolescents. We are often told to eat more fruit and vegetables in fact the news and science have long expounded that it was important to get your “5 a day”. Today that value has gone up to 10 or more a day! An article in The Guardian reports a study by led by Imperial College London which says “Five portions of fruit and veg a day is good for you, but 10 is much better and could prevent up to 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide every year, say scientists.”
Dr Dagfinn Aune, lead author of the research from the School of Public Health at Imperial says “We wanted to investigate how much fruit and vegetables you need to eat to gain the maximum protection against disease, and premature death. Our results suggest that although five portions of fruit and vegetables is good, 10 a day is even better.”
Dr Aune further went onto say “Fruit and vegetables have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and to boost the health of our blood vessels and immune system. This may be due to the complex network of nutrients they hold. For instance they contain many antioxidants, which may reduce DNA damage, and lead to a reduction in cancer risk.”
The antioxidants such as beta carotene and vitamins C and E, in fruits and vegetables may also help reduce lung inflammation caused by cell-damaging chemicals known as free radicals and cut asthma exacerbation rates.
Good nutrition, physical activity and the consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts will play a major role in child health in preventing childhood obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and eating disorders. Aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables is a good starting point for children.
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More information on Childhood Obesity.