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Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children?

Written by: Louise Mercieca, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Yes, I am quoting Helen Lovejoy of The Simpsons in the title of my article, and no, I don’t apologize for it! I have specialized in nutrition for the early years and children’s health for nearly five years now. I got into it because I was appalled at how bad the situation was, I am sorry to say that five years on it is much, much worse.


Before I delve into what has gone wrong let’s take a look at why feeding children is so important. We all know that we should feed children but what is really going on when we do so?

First and foremost, humans are born with a lot of brain development to do, babies brains double in the first year of life after birth in fact human brains take a very long time to grow into a fully mature adult brain.


All of that growth and development takes a lot of feeding. During childhood when the brain is undergoing its’ rapid growth 50% of the total energy intake goes to feeding the brain, this reduces to just 20% of total energy intake in an adult. If we consider that thinking alone can utilize around 300 calories each day it’s clear to see how building a brain can use so much energy.


In the early years, the brain grows at its fastest ever pace, so the nutrition that we feed the baby goes to feeding, growing, and developing their brain. It’s what’s in the food that counts and that’s where the problems start.


Is it to do with junk food?


If we consider foods, we traditionally thought of as ‘junk food’ then, in some shape they have always been around; crisps, chocolate, cake, sweets, ice cream, burgers, chips, and pizza. These are not new foods and children have, of course, always liked them even when obesity wasn’t a global concern so what has changed?


Our food landscape has changed almost beyond all recognition with convenience foods, and in particular, a section called UPF (Ultra Processed Foods). These foods used to make up a small percentage of our dietary intake but have slowly increased and gradually crept into our homes (and our bodies) and are now, in many cases making up a larger proportion of our diet than ‘real foods’.


These foods are, in their basic form most unappealing, take a look at the NOVA definition of Ultra Processed Foods (or group 4):

“Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular flavors, colors sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product”


There are many negative health associations, the most obvious being obesity, but obesity isn’t just what size your clothes are, it’s a whole load of issues going on internally and we have been seeing these health side-effects in children for some time.


Children are not exempt from adult diseases; they just didn’t use to get them! A diet high in UPFs will certainly increase their chances of becoming obese but it will also increase their risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular disease, joint problems, infertility, sleep apnea, stroke, Alzheimer’s, malnutrition, and some cancers and depression. A frightening list that’s for sure!


There’s a reason why we are able to eat so many of these foods once we start. They are designed to be highly palatable, the term used is ‘Hyper Palatability’ the ‘perfect’ mix of sugar, salt, and fat to ‘tickle your taste buds’ and activate your senses.


These foods are even designed to have the ‘perfect’ texture so you don’t have to work as hard chewing, meaning you can eat more quickly, use less energy to eat the food, and eat more and more food without getting full. In short, ultra-processed foods bypass your body’s natural ability to feel full, these foods do not enable your body to produce leptin, the hormone that tells you to stop eating. See how this can be dangerous?


As if all of the above wasn’t a big enough problem for me, there’s one factor even scarier and that is the impact these foods have on our brains. When we consider children eating these foods with developing brains it’s, frankly terrifying.


BBC One Programme what are we feeding our kids?


In this program, Dr. Chris van Tulleken ate a diet of UPFs for 4 weeks and then had a brain scan which showed a huge increase in just four weeks in the number of new connections in the brain reward centre – this is the area that drives automatic and repetitive behaviors. The pleasure and reward center of the brain is also linked with addictions and the results of Dr. Chris’s brain scan showed “what we would expect to see in addicts”. These changes did not return to normal once he came off the diet of UPFs.


A child’s brain is more impressionable than that of a 42-year-old male and is what caused Dr. Chris to state that this was;


“The most appalling medical result he had ever seen”


We know there is a link between junk food/UPFs and ill-health, it is referred to in the UK’s National Food Strategy as the ‘junk food cycle’ yet the government seems unwilling to act with any urgency in tackling the issues without the food landscape and placing any responsibility on the manufacturers who are profiting from nations getting unhealthy.


In fact, in the UK recently we have seen an astonishing number of U-Turns from the Government going back on their own proposals with delays or removal of funds and thus completely contradicting themselves and the urgency they had placed on addressing these issues.


The health of children across the UK will be improved as new restrictions will mean they are less exposed to advertising of unhealthy foods”


This was in June 2021 when the Government announced they were going to ban pre-watershed and online advertising of junk food.


Fast forward to May 2022 and they have gone back on this proposal.


Secondly, the government announced:


We need to take urgent action to level up health inequalities


This was in relation to the deals on junk food which make unhealthy foods the only financially viable option for many families. There had been a proposal to ban these offers in an attempt to level up health inequalities, this too has not been implemented.


Barbara Crowther, of the Children's Food Campaign, said ministers should be urgently curbing multi-buy offers instead of "delaying and dithering".


There has also been a recommendation in the National Food Strategy to implement a tax – the Sugar and salt reformulation tax – Henry Dimbleby’s review recommended taxing salt and sugar used in processed foods, restaurants, and catering. The manufacturers would carry the financial weight of the tax, not the consumer, and the money raised should be spent on addressing the inequalities around food, by expanding free school meals, funding holiday activities and food clubs, and providing healthy food to low-income families. This proposal has not been implemented.


It is increasingly difficult to navigate food choices. Many foods are produced and engineered for profit not for health but for impressionable underdeveloped bodies, our children, what is the real price?


Children have no voice when it comes to food choice

Many families have no choice due to lifestyle factors

Governments seem unwilling to tackle the food industry giants


So, who is going to think of the children?


Would somebody please think of the children! Failure to do so now will be letting down a generation that is short-sighted for so many reasons, consider not only the human element but the unsustainable future health problems, the economic cost of an unhealthy generation, and the implications for the future workforce when living with these health problems.


I am an early years nutrition consultant and author. If you feel your sector/business/organization does not cover this subject in enough detail please do take a look at what I do. Proactive and urgent action is needed and this isn’t an exaggeration.


Louise Mercieca

Nutritional Therapist



Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


 

Louise Mercieca, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Louise Mercieca is a Nutritional Therapist and Founder of The Health Kick, a business-driven to provide understandable, practical nutritional advice, in a world driven by diet culture and convenience eating. Louise is influential in the early-years health sector, making an impact that can shape the next generation’s eating habits. She is the author of ‘How Food Shapes Your Child’ and is hugely passionate about spreading the message that children can make healthy food choices that lay the foundations for their future health. We don't need to walk into the health predictions set for us, we have the ability to change them!

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