Monday, 16 April 2012

Kids health - how did we get to this?

Jamie Oliver said it all when he visited schools in America a year or two ago and asked the kids to identify the fruit and vegies he was holding up. They couldn't. He was shocked. Did they know where butter came from? No. Did they know where eggs came from? No. Did they know that fruit and vegies came from the earth and not from cans or bags? No. What???! Really? Yeah ok that was in America but the obesity stats are very similar here and upsettingly so for kids too. Type 2 diabetes used to be very rare in kids yet now is being diagnosed more than ever before.
 When I think about why this is, I look back 20-30 years ago to my childhood and see two key differences - nutrition and activity.

In relation to activity, or lack of it these days, a few changes stand out.  Computer game consoles were not really around and certainly weren't played for hours a day, day after day.  There was no ABC2 or Pay TV for kids that ran all day long.  Play School and Sesame Street were about the only shows certainly I ever watched early on.  Also 'stranger danger' wasn't really an issue and after school and weekends were all about hooking up with the other kids in the neighbourhood and playing out in the street.

In relation to nutrition, my thoughts move around these three areas - fast food, snacks and in home cooking.  When I was little there was really only a handful of fast food options.  Obviously there are many more now, but more importantly the menu has changed from being based around just lunch and dinner to now offering breakfast and snacks for any time of the day.  Having these 'snacks' such as a chicken wrap for example, means that a child has eaten not only their three meals in the day but also a snack that contains about 900kj.  To put this in perspective, a childs RDI (recommended daily intake) for energy/kj at 7 years of age is around 4,000kj.  So nearly a quarter of that childs RDI is taken up by that one little snack.  And importantly that 900kj consists mainly of fat and protein and not a lot of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), meaning they are an energy dense food.  We could do similar sums for so many other products which leads me to snacks. 
Take a virtual tour down the aisles of your local supermarket.  What can you see for kids?  Mini packs of chips, bikkies, fruit straps/rolls/pouches/bars, muesli bars, fruit juice boxes, flavoured milk boxes, 'natural' lollies.......................  Whats really in these products? Look at the ingredients list next time you pick up one of these products.  Why cant a rice cracker just have rice, a bit of oil and a pinch of salt?  Yes oil and salt arent great but I know I would prefer seeing that ingredient list to one with a list as long as my arm of numbers and letters and fillers and flavours etc etc.  What are we putting into our kids mouths?  I make bikkies with almonds, flour, butter and sugar.  I can hear you say but they have butter and sugar in them.  My answer to that is yes but my boys dont get 10 at a time, and they dont eat them every day, but when they do, at least I know what is in them.  And they take no time to make.  The point here is there are so many more overly processed products that are nutrient dense and yet hollow, marketed at kids vs 20 years ago.

And my biggest passion - in-home cooking.  But from the perspective that kids who have parents that cook a lot in the home from fresh ingredients, perhaps grow some herbs, fruit and/or vegies, and have the kids involved in these activities, are exposed to and learn about and respect good quality ingredients and their flavours.  Yes I can already hear a few of my closest friends saying 'well I love cooking and good food yet my child wont touch a vegie if their life depended on it'.  I know that (and in some respects am experiencing it myself with my second child) but what it is still doing is immersing them in an environment that respects

good food, the environment, respecting our bodies and eating with enjoyment.  For parents with fussy eaters (which is so so common, especially in young children) think of it this way, would you say 'stuff it lets all stop brushing our teeth because little Johnny doesnt like to brush his'??  No (well, I hope not!!) you would be a good role model and continue to brush your teeth while explaining the benefits of teeth brushing.  So why should it be any different to food?  For me eating good food in our house 90% of the time is non negotiable and it always has been.  As I have been told by a paediatrician, no child has died from starving themselves because they didnt want to eat the food given to them.  I am a believer in letting them go to bed without dinner if they dont want to try it.  Each to their own but my boys have learnt that I mean business and my eldest has gone to bed without dinner as has my youngest.  I'm not saying I'm the perfect parent - my god FAR from it!  But these are my beliefs and I stick by them because I believe so strongly in them and know the importance of kids eating good food.  Anyway, I'm getting off the point!  In-home cooking has been lost in a lot of ways over the past 20 years (although the trend is turning since the popularity of shows such as Masterchef in more recent times) I suspect due in part to time pressures and to the influx of ready made meals and meal 'helpers' in supermarkets, and here in lies the answer to why the kids Jamie Oliver was quizzing had no idea of the source of foods.

I hope this doesn't all sound a bit bland.  I could write about this for days!  Don't get me wrong, I'm all about balance, and having 'sometimes foods' every now and then is definitely necessary and an enjoyable thing to do.  But the problems we face with the kids of today, balance clearly is not happening!

The thing is, we choose to have these kids, to bring them into the world.  They come into this world and we are eager to teach them drugs are bad, brushing teeth is good and good hygiene is important!  But we are also responsible for nurturing their little bodies and giving them the tools to live a healthy happy life for themselves when they are old enough to make the choices.  As kids they don't know what foods are healthy and not healthy, what foods to eat lots of and not much of.  We have the responsibility, as a parent, as a grandparent, as an aunty or an uncle, to teach, to guide, to nurture kids into young adults that have a healthy, balanced perspective on life, and are happier for it!

So my thoughts are these:
Make education about good food fun, interesting, engaging and just a part of everyday life.
Visit markets, kids farms (Edendale in Eltham, Collingwood Childrens Farm, Ceres etc) community vegie gardens etc to engage kids in food and where it comes from.
Involve the kids in cooking activities (turn a blind eye to the mess!) to get them interacting with foods. (The boys and I attempted pasta making over the weekend!  They had a great time turning the rollers and loved tasting the end result!  As you can see in the second pic, Liam wanted to decorate his with glitter dots ( :)

I'd love to hear your views on this post.  Mine are mine only but I love to hear other perspectives.  Since starting this blog a few people have asked me to talk about fussy eaters and how to get a wider variety and more healthy foods into them.  I haven't really touched on it here but will do so in the coming posts.

BTW - Jamie Oliver has obviously done some amazing work in schools around America and the UK, but there are some other great programs happening right here in Australia, such as Stephanie Alexanders Kitchen Garden Foundation, if your child is lucky enough to go to a school that incorporates it into their curriculum!  Having said that most, if not all schools now have some sort of allocation to teaching healthy eating and activity behaviours (and having policies such as 'nude food') which I think is great and ABOUT TIME!  But as with most things, it has to come primarily from the home.

See Stephanie Alexanders Kitchen Garden Foundation here  
See details about 'Nude Food Day' here


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