World Children's Day - Louise Mercieca



There seems to be a national or international day for everything, as you will see from the other articles this month on Fish and Chips and Cupcakes! In June thit was International Children’s Day. The stated aims offor this awareness day are to promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children's welfare. Unlike many awareness days, this one has actually been around a long time - since 1954!

Of course, we all know that it’s important to focus on children’s health.We don’t need an international day for this but I wanted to use the day to highlight some of the issues that this generation of children face and how the change in our external landscape is shaping not only their current health buttheir future health, too.

Firstly, one point that is very important to stress; Children are not exempt from adult diseases. This often surprises people. Many people assume that our ‘lifestyle’ led diseases are not applicable to children. There are two things that I hear almost weekly in my role as a Nutritional Therapist in family health; “It never did me any harm” and “Children are active, they can eat what they like as they burn it off”.

I would like to share some reasons why this is not the case.

Predictions– There are many health predictions we can focus on: -

It is predicted that 50% of the UK will be obese by 2030 - Source -NHS
Obesity is linked directly to 13 types of cancer.
It is predicted that cancer will increase from 2.5 million people to 4million by 2030 – Source Macmillan
More people than ever have Type 2 Diabetes, if nothing changes it’s predicted 5 million people in the UK will have Diabetes (90% of which are Type 2) – Source Diabetes UK

All of this is relevant to children. Not only because they are predictions about the health of our children, but also because many scientists, researchers, Doctors and policy makers believe that: - “We could see the first generation of children to be expected to have shorter life spans than their parents if current trends on obesity, nutrition and lifestyle continue” Source – The Lancet Volume 371 Issue 9607 Why do children face this potential decrease in life expectancy? What is so different for this generation of children, when previous generations have lived longer than their parents?

Children are not exempt from adult disease. In recent years there has been a 40% increase in the number of children diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. As recently as 20 years ago we still called this adult-onset diabetes. We cannot separate nutrition, lifestyle and mindset in childhood with future health – they are all linked. Socio-demographics – One thing I can see happening and desperately want to help to change is that health is becoming even more divided by wealth. When we look at statistics it’s often the poorest populations with the highest rates of illness and death from lifestyle led diseases and malnutrition. According to The Health Foundation; “It is three times more expensive to get the energy we need from healthy foods than unhealthy foods” I would argue it is very possible to obtain healthy energy cost effectively butI would agree that it is easier, more convenient, more appealing, more available and (due to misleading offers) can certainly appear cheaper to eat unhealthy foods!

Supermarkets are ‘great’ at putting offers on the items we don’t need but like. This makes people feel they are getting a bargain but the item is nutritionally devoid, addictive and may be fuelling unhealthy patterns of behaviour. The increasing divide between health and wealth is apparent in some of the healthier food choices. Many organic products are twice the price of non-organic, naturally healthy yogurts are three times the price of sugar-filled ones (particularly when marketed at children). Healthy ready-made snacks are very expensive compared to a packet of biscuits and dried fruit is approximately four times the price of sweets. It is thereforeunsurprising that the divide is increasing.

Our entire food landscape has changed beyond all recognition in the last 40 years and, to avoid the artificial ingredients, processed fats and additives, you have to read the label carefully and choose an alternative (likely to be more expensive). The real problem is that the ‘norm’ of our food landscape is now unhealthy. The majority of products out there are not designed primarily with our health in mind, so it isn’t necessarily that people are deliberately eating more biscuits and take-aways it’s just what has become the norm. When it comes to children and developing tastes and food habits this all starts surprisingly early on in life, around the time of the third trimester. What mum eats starts to develop the palate of the baby. Another important time of palate development is around weaning, especially if sugar is introduced too early. The foods we eat in childhood help to shape our taste preferences and, to that extent, our health.

Health and wealth- the link and the confusion -
I regularly have conversations with health experts as part of my role, one of these is Lindsey Langford, a Paediatric Nurse and public health commissioner. Lindsey spends a lot of time analysing trends and data particularly around future health predictions for children. One area that Lindsey looks at are the ‘blue zones’ in the world. Blue zones refer to geographical locations where the world’s healthiest people live. This is measured by how people live, but not just how long – they also consider how WELL people live. Within blue zones people can grow old without health problems like heart disease, obesity, cancer, or diabetes. There’s, understandably, a fair amount of research going into how these people live! One thing is clear and a common theme throughout the blue zones – a lack of processed food. Some of the blue zones identified are: - Ikaria, Greece Okinawa, Japan Parts of Sardinia Loma Linda, California – it may be surprising to see America here, but this region is largely populated by Seventh-day Adventists following a biblical diet of; grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables – residents here live on average 10 years more than the average American Nicoya Penninsula, Costa Rica Some of these places are naturally beautiful and people will spend more time outside in nature and will inevitably be less active and less goverened by technology – we can all do a bit of that even if we live in busy urban places!

Health is often linked to our geographical location and the wealth of the country we live in, but often this has surprising results..You may assume, for example, that the wealthier the country the healthier the population is? Not always so… in fact, it’s sometimes the opposite. Generally, the wealthier the country the more ‘advanced’ the food industry, but advanced isn’t used here in a positive way! Generally, the wealthier the country the more processes are in place in the food industry; more artificial ingredients, more emphasis on availability and convenience. One example of this is with fast food outlets: - Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The UK has seen a 34% increase in fast food outlets from 2010 to 2018 In 2010, the average number of fast food outlets per 100,000 people was 47. It had risen to 61 by 2018 In nearly every area (204 out of 215) the rate of takeaways per 100,000 people was higher in 2018 than 2010 Dr Thomas Burgoine, who researched the link between obesity and exposure to fast food, said the "consistency of year-on-year growth in the takeaway sector was a concern". "It's common for takeaways to represent a third and sometimes up to half of all the high street food available - reducing consumer choice," said Dr Burgoine, from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at the University of Cambridge. "From a public health point of view, it should be healthy choices that are the easy choices. In many places we seem to be moving away from that." Source More takeaways on high street despite anti-obesity push – BBC 23/10/2018

It really is worth noting that advances in food convenience do not correlate with increased health, as you can see, often it is the opposite. This is, sadly, more prevalent within geographical areas where people have low incomes. Whilst all these statistics, facts and trends can look quite scary, the one thing to focus on is that they are not set in stone. They are health predictions. How can we influence, and more importantly shape these ‘health’ predictions to bemore positive? Shape early healthy habits Encourage food awareness from a young age, children should know and appreciate their body and the role that they have in shaping their own health Try to avoid misleading advertising and ‘bargains’ Cook from scratch, where possible. It is cheaper to make a batch of sauce then buy jars of pasta sauce etc Cook like we did two generations ago! Stews, soups and casseroles are all incredibly cheap, nutritious and easy to throw together.

Give the child a voice when it comes to food choice I was asked to speak at a nanny conference in London and during my talk I wanted to put across the voice of the child, now, I am not a poet so please forgive me but I wanted to share this with you.


Dear person who feeds me
Help me to see
How the food I eat shapes me
And all I can be
As I am only small I have no say at all
When it comes to food
It’s easy to get misconstrued
Companies tell you things are healthy
But is that to make them wealthy?
I don’t understand
I need you to hold my hand
To feed me what’s right
To make me clever and bright
Why give me sweets?
I don’t understand treats!
Will they help my mood?
Or make me want to brood?
I want to know what to eat
To make me quick on my feet
Remember my taste buds are clean
I’ve nothing against food that is green!
I want to try real foods that can help me
Shape my taste buds so I’ll be a healthy big person see?
I don’t want to be fussy on food choices
To make a scene
Over ice cream
I want to be in control
Of what is in my bowl
So, person that feeds me
Please do all that you can
As my journey with food has now began

Going back to the original focus of the article, health has many influencing factors, some of which we have little or no control over. What we can help to shape is our relationship with food, simply by understanding when some foods may be marketed in a misleading way and understanding how to make healthy foods economically not trusting the ‘bargains’ on foods that fuel both ill health and a poor emotional relationship with food. These are factors we can influence with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of planning, you can help to shape the palate and health of the next generation.


Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition, which you can more about here; She’s passionate about formative nutrition and also works with adults on preventative nutrition. You can find out more about Louise and her way of working by reading her introductory article for CACHE Alumni here;