|LE Magazine January 2001 |
by: Angela Pirisi
Page 1 of 3
The role of nutrition can't be underestimated relative to a child's health, even before life begins outside the womb. So just how early on can nutrition impact on later health? Numerous studies have shown that proper maternal nutrient intake affects the health of infants, and can follow them right into adulthood by carving out a path toward disease prevention.
How early on can nutrition impact on later health? The most widely known example is the necessity of adequate folic acid intake prior to and into pregnancy in the prevention of neural tube defects.
Other research from the Birth Defects and Genetics Diseases Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that multivitamin use in women from three months prior to pregnancy through the first semester was associated with a reduced risk of congenital heart defects in offspring.(1) The researchers suggest that if there is a causal relationship between inadequate nutrient intake and heart defects in infants, “approximately one in four major cardiac defects could be prevented by periconceptional multivitamin use.”
While these studies obviously underline the importance of nutrition in pregnancy, their findings also speak to the fact that childhood diet lays the foundation for good health throughout our lives. The earlier that the pattern of good nutrition is established, the more likely that such healthy habits will stick over the years. A study that tracked 3714 elementary schoolchildren found that health behaviors instilled during elementary school years (a lower-fat diet and vigorous physical activity regimen) persisted into early adolescence.(2)
The nutrient shortage
At the dinner table, fruit makes up just 3% of food eaten, while vegetables add up to 25% of the meal. The US Dietary Guidelines recommends five to nine fruit and vegetable servings per day, as do many health education organizations with disease prevention at heart.
Unfortunately, healthy eating isn't a reality for many US children. “Dole's Fruit and Vegetable Update: What America's Children Are Eating,” a report released during a government hearing on the US dietary guidelines, presents dismal dietary habits. Of all food eaten at lunchtime, only 7.5% are vegetables and 8% are fruit. Only 16% of children's snacks include fruit and a mere 1% consist of vegetables, while over 50% consist of cookies, desserts, chips, salty snacks, candy and gum. At the dinner table, fruit makes up just 3% of food eaten, while vegetables add up to 25% of the meal. The US Dietary Guidelines recommends five to nine fruit and vegetable servings per day, as do many health education organizations with disease prevention at heart.
As a result, kids are falling short of their nutritional requirements, as well as many of the benefits associated with various nutrients. According to findings from the 1994 -1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals (CSFII), presented at an American Health Foundation symposium, 80% of children ages 2 to 11 fell critically short of getting 100% of the recommended daily amounts of calcium, iron and zinc, which are essential for growth and development. Moreover, half of the children were at risk of inadequate intake of these three essential nutrients (or getting less than 70% of the recommended levels). The researchers explain that, “Calcium is important for bone health and muscle movement; iron for support of brain development and the immune system and to help red blood cells carry oxygen, and zinc for cognitive performance and the immune system.”
Meanwhile, data from several national surveys consistently show that children in the US have inadequate vitamin E serum levels, which is reflective of poor intake. Low vitamin E intake can impair immune response in children, and increase the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, cancer, cataract and impair immune response in adults.(3) Some breast-fed infants have been shown to be vitamin-D deficient due to the low content in mother's milk, which suggest the need for supplementation to ensure adequate calcium absorption and bone strength.(4) Other data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the risk of inadequate zinc intake was greatest among young children ages one to three, adolescent females 12 to 19 years, and people 71 or older.(5) Earlier research has shown that zinc, taken as part of a multivitamin regimen, is crucial for children's growth.(6)
Children with certain conditions and/or who need to be on restricted diets seem to be particularly at risk of nutritional deficiencies. For example, a study in Cairo, Egypt showed that children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis have demonstrated low plasma concentrations of various nutrients due to oxidative stress, including low albumin, ceruloplasmin, vitamin C and vitamin E.(7) A Brazilian study found low levels of plasma vitamin A and carotenoids in children with pneumonia, suggesting that the low concentrations “may be a consequence of acute phase infectious disease.”(8) Meanwhile, children on milk-free diets, for allergy or intolerance reasons, suffer a loss of energy, fat, protein, calcium, riboflavin and niacin in their diet. Experts recommend that supplementation with calcium, vitamin D and riboflavin is necessary to replace cows' milk nutrients.(9) Likewise, children who have been on a vegan (macrobiotic) diet until age six reveal a low-cobalamin (vitamin B12) status as adolescents and related impaired cognitive function, even if they had switched to an omnivorous diet.(10) In summary, there are a variety of factors in children's health and lifestyle today that make even marginal deficiencies a reality to manage through improved nutrition and supplementation.
Fat chances of being healthy
Childhood obesity is the most visible consequence of a diet lacking in healthy choices. But its repercussions far exceed the teasing and psychological distress of being large in a thin-obsessed society, since obesity is also linked to many diseases, including asthma, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and heart disease. Science has also shown that the chances of a child growing into an obese adult correlates with the age at which a child starts to gain weight after shedding their baby fat. Usually, kids are thinnest at age five or six, but how early they reach a turnaround point in weight gain, called adiposity rebound, seems to predict how heavy they will be as adults. Basically, if children start putting on weight before their fifth birthday, they are more than twice as likely to be obese adults.(11) According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 10% of four- and five-year-olds are too heavy for their age. National figures from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Diseases (NIDDK) report that 11% of children, ages 6 to 17, are overweight. And not only are obese kids at risk for adulthood diseases, but they are also at higher risk of diabetes, hypertension, asthma, atherosclerosis and physical limitations during childhood. That's all the more reason for parents to leave picky eaters alone, since they will automatically start to eat more as they grow older. Instead, parents should ensure that kids get the right nutrients to see them through the finicky years, by offering them a diet with lots of variety to cover the bases, and perhaps a multivitamin for insurance.
Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Tulane Center for Cardiovascular Health on 9167 kids showed that 11% of children 5 to 17 were overweight. Moreover, the heaviest among them were more than twice as likely to have elevated cholesterol levels compared to thinner kids. Extremely overweight kids were at a greatly increased risk of high blood pressure and impaired insulin levels.(12) Similarly, an expert panel report from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) indicates that 8% to 45% (depending on age and racial/ethnic mix) of new cases of childhood diabetes are Type II (non-insulin-dependent), which is linked to obesity.(13) Figures rose from less than 4% of childhood diabetes being Type II in 1990 to 20%, and 85% of those children diagnosed were obese.
Childhood obesity is the most visible consequence of a diet lacking in healthy choices. But its repercussions far exceed the teasing and psychological distress of being large in a thin-obsessed society.
More food and calorie consumption doesn't translate into extra nourishment either but, rather, a depletion of vital nutrients. Vitamin stores are actually lower in both obese children and adults. For example, a Japanese study, which examined antioxidant status in obese children and the susceptibility of lipids to oxidative stress, demonstrated relatively lower levels of beta-carotene and alpha-tocopherol in them compared to normal-weight controls. Obese girls also showed significantly higher levels of oxidative stress in relation to both LDL beta-carotene and LDL alpha-tocopherol, which may promote atherosclerosis later in life, comment the authors.(14) Similarly, a National Cancer Institute study of adult males aged 30 to 59, found that higher body weight was inversely related to vitamin-C levels.(15) So while a weight issue may signify the need to consume fewer calories and increase physical activity, it also points to the necessity of increasing one's nutrient intake to offset the depleting effects that accompany obesity.
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