Youngsters with poor eating habits are more likely to continue with unhealthy diets as teenagers, increasing their risk of obesity, according to new British research.
Researchers found that children may establish eating patterns from a young age. Seven-year-olds who ate low levels of high-fibre bread, high-fibre breakfast cereals, and fruit and vegetables tended to follow the same diet at 13.
The study, which tracked the diets of more than 7,000 children using data from Children of the 90s study, confirmed earlier research that dietary pattern is clearly linked to greater obesity risk.
“This suggests that early interventions to encourage healthy eating at a young age are important and may have a lasting effect on dietary habits into adolescence,” said lead researcher Dr Gina Ambrosini in a statement
Ambrosini said that the higher the mum’s BMI (body mass index) the poorer their children’s diet became over the follow-up period, and these families needed more support with healthy eating.
Dr Rachel Pryke, clinical champion for Nutrition for Health at the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the problem of overeating is complex and needs to be understood and challenged on many levels
“Just because you know something isn’t good for you doesn’t mean, therefore, you’ll stop doing it. Everybody has to eat. A lot of mums feel guilty when they eat rich, sugary things. Guilt is a poor thing to stimulate motivation,” Pryke said.
Parents have a huge fear of failing to feed their children, Pryke said. So the impetus to overfeed them can be strong, leading to children learning to eat more than they need.
“Parents get huge emotional reward from seeing their children eat,” she said.
Resisting the strong influence of the food industry and the supermarkets is hard as they are “flogging unhealthy things and they’re cheap”.
“They’re the ones on the end of the aisles in the supermarket that people grab. If you go into any supermarket you’ll be bombarded by chocolates,” Pryke said.
Old concepts such as parents teaching children to clear the plate die hard, particularly when now the food industry is in control of the portion sizes.
“Learning to say no, learning to stop eating when we feel full. Those messages aren’t getting through,” she said.
The UK has some of the worst childhood obesity rates in Western Europe.
Tackling the time bomb of childhood obesity is a matter of urgency as one-third of children are either overweight or obese by the age of 9. At the start of school one-tenth of 5-year-olds are obese.
According to the World Cancer Research Fund, around 23,000 cases of cancer could be prevented every year in the UK if everyone was a healthy weight.
The team from the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research also found that children whose mothers had little education and were overweight were more at risk of eating unhealthily.
Doctors agree that the alarming rise in child obesity needs urgent action. The solution is not simple, however, and goes further than just government policy change.
A four-fold increase in the number of children and teens admitted to hospital with obesity related illnesses is causing great concern among paediatricians.
Professor Mitch Blair, Officer for Health Promotion at the Royal College (RCPCH) of Paediatrics and Child Health, warned that children who are overweight or obese are more likely to carry a number of health problems into adult life, including diabetes, strokes, and some cancers.
“There’s no simple solution to improve the situation, but we know that getting children into good habits when they’re young is vitally important,” he said in an email.
RCPCH and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges are exploring how health professionals can best reinforce messages to support parents in providing children with high-quality meals, and learning cooking and nutrition skills in schools.
They are calling for a limit on the marketing of foods high in sugar and fat to vulnerable groups.