Many adults today carry the burden of unhealthy habits established in childhood, and find it extremely difficult to break the pattern of too little exercise in combination with poor diet. Parents are perfectly placed to help pre-empt these problems for their children
“A significant proportion of the health conditions affecting adults arise as a result of the choices we make from a young age. Lifestyle diseases – in particular cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer – can largely be avoided if an understanding of the importance of healthy behaviours is established during early childhood,” says Dr Jacques Snyman, director of product development at Agility Health.
“Our lifelong relationship with food begins when babies are weaned off mother’s milk and introduced to the flavours and textures that will provide us with nourishment for the rest of our lives. During childhood we should also learn a pattern for mealtimes and what constitutes an appropriate snack, as these ideas and behaviours are likely to carry through to adulthood.
“We learn food preferences from our parents, although there is evidence to suggest that humans are biologically programmed to crave sweet and high-fat foods. This is probably to do with the fact that such foods were not as readily available to our ancestors and which they were more likely to burn off, as their lifestyles were generally more active than ours are today.”
Children are therefore more likely to develop a taste for high-calorie foods and can soon become fussy eaters if these unhealthy food preferences are indulged too often. “If children are given sweets and biscuits as snacks between meals, they will often fill up on these and refuse to eat nutritious meals prepared for them.
“Sadly, in our busy working lives, too many South African families opt for convenience foods without considering what such foods do for their sustained mental and physical energy levels, not to mention their long-term health,” Dr Snyman adds.
“It is important to keep in mind that complex carbohydrates, to be found in unrefined whole grain products, sustain the cognitive functions that support memory function far better than simple carbohydrates, such as those found in sugar or white bread. This can have a major impact on children’s performance at school.”
Parents shouldn’t underestimate the daily vitamins their children require. These are vital for healthy growth and development. Their diets should contain a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, cereals, proteins, and dairy foods. Due to their relatively smaller stomachs, children cannot eat large amounts of food at one sitting. Aside from the main three meals of the day, it is beneficial to introduce a mid-morning and mid-afternoon nutritious snack. An easy way to support children’s diet is by including a probiotic-rich, fortified drink that will aid in closing the nutritional gap that table foods might not fulfil, especially in the case of a toddler that may not be easting as well as they should.
Snyman highlights that the key risk factors for non-communicable diseases are physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet, and smoking. “These are all avoidable lifestyle choices, all the more so if healthy habits are formed in childhood.
“Above all, children learn health-related behaviours through imitating their parents. If you want your child to grow up to be a healthy adult, it is important to set them a good example. A number of studies have suggested, for example, that children of parents who smoke cigarettes are more likely to pick up the habit themselves and be heavier smokers, compared to children of non-smokers,” Dr Snyman explains.
- Introduce children to staple foods with a low glycaemic index such as whole wheat or rye bread, brown rice, oats, beans, or chickpeas. These will give your whole family more sustained energy.
- Give your child a taste for fresh fruit and vegetables, chopping them into more manageable slices or bite-sized chunks. These great-tasting snacks supply the body with essential micronutrients.
- Teach your child that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Lead by example and never skip breakfast.
- Liven up school lunchboxes with healthy snacks, such as nuts or dried fruit.
- Junk foods are high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, which give short-lived energy boosts but are followed by feelings of sleepiness and poor concentration. These foods should be given to children only in moderation.
- Avoid giving your children sugar-laden cakes and sweets, as the addictive “sugar high” soon gives way to a “sugar crash”. Also consider the affect this may have on your child’s behaviour at school before including sugary treats in the lunchbox.
- Do not allow your children to develop a taste for fizzy drinks, as these contain acids and large quantities of sugar that promote tooth decay. Rather, encourage your children to drink plenty of water and milk.
- Do not introduce your child to caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or cola, as these can make your child feel twitchy and anxious. Remember that like sugar, caffeine is addictive. It also has a more pronounced effect on children.
- Never bribe or reward children with food. This may establish a psychological relationship with food that can be very difficult to break in later life.
- Introduce sports and exercise as a regular family activity, associated with fun and togetherness to help establish a lasting positive relationship with physical activity. Exercise gets the blood pumping and supplies the brain with additional oxygen, which is highly beneficial for schoolwork and behaviour.
“Through encouraging healthful eating and exercise habits, you are not only equipping them for a healthy life, but you will also feel the benefits yourself – and these positive lifestyle changes might mean that you have more years of quality life with your children. They might cry and nag for sweets now, but they will thank you for it in the long run,” he observes.
Resolution Health Medical Scheme’s Principal Officer, Mark Arnold, says that family life presents the ideal environment for implementing healthy lifestyle changes. Resolution Health, which is administered by Agility Health and is one of South Africa’s largest medical schemes, has long recognised the value of preventative care, for individuals as well as for families.
“What better motivation for sustained efforts to improve our health than the wellbeing of the people who are closest to us? It is also easier to stick to our resolutions if we have support and can see the positive effects of balanced diet and regular exercise in our loved ones. If the whole family embraces this winning combination, in the long run this represents the best assurance of better quality of life for longer,” Arnold concluded.