Health Risks for Children

What parent wouldn’t want to give the gift of good health and a lifetime of good eating habits to his or her children?  As a parent and a pediatrician I feel very strongly that we, as parents, have a job to do in protecting and nurturing our kids. We suffer as much as our child does with every cold, fever, cut, bruise, ache, and pain. We do our best to protect them by using car seats and bike helmets, and by being watchful parents.

We would not knowingly expose our child to a deadly virus or bacteria. Yet, many parents allow unhealthy eating habits for their children, putting them at risk for disease. This is the disease that we don’t see, disease that lurks under the surface, within the cells, within the arterial walls, and within the bones of our children. This is not as obvious to us, nor will it become obvious until many years down the line, perhaps, long after we’re gone.

We are talking about the degenerative diseases of aging, like heart disease, stroke, arthritis, macular degeneration, diabetes, and cancer. These processes are heavily influenced by our diet, but most of the research so far has focused on the adult diet. However, many of the changes have already started in childhood. Our children must begin early and learn a healthy style of eating to give them every advantage later in life. We may be able to change their odds by understanding nutrition and nutritional supplementation and its role in preventative medicine.

Health is one of our greatest concerns of today. Many baby boomers are previewing death as they watch their parents suffer through many of the degenerative diseases of aging. We want to change our odds. Some of us are driven to pursue health by hiring fitness trainers, starting weight loss programs, trying to eat healthfully, and trying more “natural remedies” to treat disease. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we are seeking answers about health.

Health trends that are influenced by nutrition include:

Obesity on the Rise. Obesity now affects 1 in 5 children in the United States. Obesity is the most prevalent nutritional disease of children and adolescents. From 1963 to 1980, obesity among U.S. children has increased by 54 percent in 6 to 11 year olds and by 40 percent in adolescents.  Since 1991, obesity among adults has increased by nearly 60 percent. These obese children will most likely become obese adults and carry all the extra risks for diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Obesity is much easier to prevent than to cure and prevention in childhood should be our primary target.

Cardiovascular Disease is the Number One Killer. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and in many Westernized countries around the world. As more countries adopt Western diets and lifestyles, the incidence of heart disease is climbing. It is estimated that healthy lifestyles–including a low-fat, high-fiber diet and exercise–can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 80 percent.

Cancer on the Rise in Children. Federal health experts have concerns about why cancer rates are on the rise in children. Childhood cancer has risen almost 11 percent in the past decade.  Cancer has become the leading cause of death due to disease among children. It is second to trauma as a cause of death. In recent years, deaths from cancer have declined because of earlier detection and improved treatment, but experts are concerned that survival rates could be eclipsed because of the rising rates of new cases. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, author of the Antioxidant Revolution, feels that environmental toxins are in part responsible for this increase. Some experts estimate that as many as 80 percent of cancers are caused by environmental factors. Antioxidants found in foods are critical to battling the environmental effects that may lead to cancer formation. In addition, obesity can also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
Allergies and Asthma Now Affect Millions of Children. The 1996 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that asthma affects over 14 million Americans. This is nearly double the rate from 1980. Almost 5 million of these asthmatics are children. The role of air pollution and other toxins has been implicated in contributing to this rise in allergies and asthma. The diet of a developing infant and child can influence the severity and onset of allergies. Early food exposures can program a child?s immune system to activate future allergies to foods and other air-borne allergens, like dust, mold, and pollens. In addition, children and adults who are overweight have a higher risk for asthma.
Calcium Deficiency Leads to Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis affects 25 million Americans a year and contributes to approximately 1.3 million bone fractures per year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. The process of gradual bone loss occurs throughout adulthood, so what is built up early in life is critical to minimizing the effects of bone loss later in life. The average calcium intake in adolescents is about half of the RDA.  Our children and teens need to understand that this time in their life is their only chance at building bone.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Learning Disabilities Increasing. In the United States, ADD appears to be rising. Statistics from 1998 estimate that 3 to 5 percent of school-aged children have ADD. The influence of diet on this problem is still unclear. However, we do understand that nutrient deficiencies can affect neurologic function and may influence learning and behavior. Iron deficiency anemia can have a permanent impact on IQ potential and motor development. Fats are another very important nutrient that affects brain development, especially in infants. Breast milk is 50 percent fat and has the right type of fats that allow for optimal brain development.

Excerpted from the first chapter of How to Get Kids to Eat Great & Love It!© 2006 by Christine Wood, M.D.