Good food habits start young
World Food Day The first 1,000 days, from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday, are seminal in the future health and wellbeing of a child.
“As a baby’s brain develops it needs different nutrients at different stages,” explains Anna Taylor, OBE, Executive Director, Food Foundation.
With this in mind, the nutritional intake of the mother will have huge bearing on the health of her child not only when it is born, but well into the future. However, many children today are at an increased risk of chronic disease and obesity in adulthood, simply because their mothers are not eating the right foods.
"Nutritional intake of the mother will have huge bearing on the health of her child, not only when it is born, but well into the future."
Guidelines already exist, but it seems they are not enough. Breastfeeding is one example. Whilst the benefits are well-documented, according to data published in the Lancet, the UK has one of the lowest rates in the world, with less than one per cent of mothers breastfeeding at twelve months. “We really haven’t worked out how we should package UK policy around maternal and early childhood nutrition,” continues Ms Taylor. “Whilst the science underscores the need, we need more investment and policies.”
Training our taste buds
Over the past few years we’ve certainly seen a greater focus on healthy eating, with legislation being put in place to improve nutrition in schools. This is certainly important, but it may be too little too late. Ms. Taylor believes that good habits need to be instilled much earlier, and it’s not simply a case of training ourselves to do what’s right; we also need to train our taste buds.
“We have an innate preference for sweet flavours.”
“Often children need repeated exposure to different tastes. We have to work at getting young children to try things that aren’t sweet.”
The Food Foundation cite evidence that introducing vegetables as first tastes help infants to enjoy a range of flavours, which, in turn, helps them make better food choices later in life. The temptation is often to mix bitter tasting vegetables with fruit purees to make them more palatable, but this does nothing to help children develop a broad range of tastes.
The illusion of choice
All these contributing factors really come to a head when children start to make choices for themselves later in life. “Within the wider food environment everything is geared toward unhealthily eating. We are under the illusion that we have choice, but everything is nudging us in one direction,” explains Ms Taylor. “From the advertisements they see on the bus, to the way that foods are placed in canteens and supermarkets, and even the fact that unhealthy foods are about a three times cheaper than healthy ones."
"The poorest households are purchasing well below the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables."
The soft approach to improving our nutritional intake hasn’t worked. Ms. Taylor argues that whilst, “everyone knows that we need to eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, there has been little change in our consumption over the past few years.” There are also huge inequalities in food consumption with the poorest households purchasing well below the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables portions per day. To support these families in particular, we need a more concerted effort to put in place policies which support healthy living.
Policy can bring change
Policy has certainly been proven to affect change on a local level. The UK has successfully persuaded food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of products; Amsterdam has brought down obesity rates by working on early years, schools and urban planning; and in Brazil the former President Lula himself championed good nutrition, using a mixture of tools from breast milk banks to cash transfers.
"Amsterdam brought down obesity rates by working on early years, schools and urban planning."
These success stories are evidence that change is possible, but no country has yet reversed the rapid rise of obesity. As poor nutrition continues to blight our future, perhaps it’s time we looked to make changes right from the start.