The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.
Decades of studies have brought the scientific community to this simple conclusion: There are lifestyles and ways of eating capable of reducing the health problems that negatively affect quality of life and mortality rates, from obesity and diabetes to cardiocirculatory diseases and cancers. When combined with nutritious food choices, a lifestyle that includes physical activity is most likely to result in a life free of disease and chronic health problems.
Choices made by individual eaters ultimately determine the quality of their health over their lifetimes, and the knowledge to make the right food choices can be more beneficial if it’s learned at an early age. Lifestyles and behaviors acquired at an early, impressionable age, such as dietary preferences, mealtimes throughout the day, portion sizes, and the tendency toward an active or sedentary lifestyle, are important factors in creating overall dietary behavior for life.
A study conducted by Tanda Kidd and Paula Peters, associate professors of human nutrition at Kansas State University, found that the dietary habits and behaviors adopted during the first few years of life are decisive influences on a person’s health in later years. “Nearly one in four children ages 2 to 5 is overweight or obese,” said Peters. “An obese child is at risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and sleep apnea. A primary key to teaching a child to make healthy food choices is to start early.” Kidd added that parents should encourage opportunities for active play several times a day and that “kids 6 and over should be physically active at least 60 minutes a day” in order to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Sarah Couch, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, has found that parents who encourage healthful eating practices, set food rules at home, and provide healthful food weigh less overall themselves. Her research has concluded that not only encouraging healthy eating but also modeling that behavior increases the likelihood that a child will maintain better eating habits in the future.
As Claudio Maffeis, a pediatrician, pointed out at the Barilla Second International Forum on Food and Nutrition, “The earliest years of life are a very important window in terms of the development of the organism. . . . Eating right during the developing years is important because it not only ensures that the child will grow and develop properly, but it also guarantees a defense against diseases, metabolic and otherwise, that we might encounter in later phases.”
A child who develops healthful habits is more likely to have the same healthful habits, and fewer health problems, as an adult. A 2014 study by Kathryn Hesketh, an epidemiologist at the Clinical Health Collaboration Centre of Excellence for Diet and Activity Research in the United Kingdom, concluded that a 4-year-old’s level of physical activity was directly correlated with how physically active that child’s mother was. So providing targeted educational opportunities to the mothers of young children can be key to increasing the overall health of both mother and child.
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