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Nutrition interventions needed for kids

Children running a race

Pacific Island, US and New Zealand children are among the least healthy in the world, in terms of growth trends, according to a new global study.

The study, published in the Lancet journal, found that unhealthy growth trends of too little height gain and/or excess weight gain were seen in several countries including New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, the US, Malaysia, Mexico and sub-Saharan Africa.

Being overweight or excessively underweight can have lifelong consequences for a person’s health outcomes and productivity, the researchers say.

“Having low height and excessively low weight for one’s height, represented by low BMI, increases the risk of morbidity and mortality, impairs cognitive development, and reduces educational performance and work productivity in later life.

“High BMI is associated with higher risk of disability and premature death in adulthood and with poor mental health and educational outcomes.”

Nutrition survey overdue

Study co-author Jim Mann says the findings show the issue of obesity, a ‘silent killer’, is escalating and decent nutrition data are needed to tackle the problem.

In New Zealand, this should include carrying out a new national nutrition survey, Professor Mann says.

Investing in nutrition is crucial for kids’ futures

Growth and development through childhood and adolescence are affected by social, nutritional and environmental factors at home, school and in the community, the researchers say.

And investing in the nutrition of school-aged children and adolescents is “crucial for a healthy transition to adulthood”.

The researchers recommend policies and interventions at home, school, in the community and through the health system to support healthy growth through better nutrition during the entire period from birth to adolescence.

Measures should include, but are not restricted to, healthy food in schools, agriculture and food system policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of nutritious foods, and regulation of unhealthy foods.

Older children previously left out

University of Auckland public health professor Collin Tukuitonga says the study’s inclusion of older children and adolescents makes it rare and important.

“This is a huge study comparing 65 million school-aged children across 200 countries and territories, pooling data from 2,181 population-based studies over 34-year period 1985-2019. It is the first study of this kind comparing age trajectories and time trends in mean height and mean BMI. It is an important study because it is a rare study of older children and adolescents across several countries.”

Study limitations

While accepting the unacceptably high rates of over weight and obesity in children, there are a few problems with the study, according to Auckland University of Technology professor of nutrition Elaine Rush.

No measures of health, ethnic differences in shape and size, socioeconomic status or food security were assessed in the study, professor Rush says.

“Body size and growth trajectories are imperfect measures of ‘nutritional quality and lifelong health advantages and risks’ of Indigenous, multi-ethnic and migratory populations.”

A limitation of the study includes a scarcity of data in some regions, and future research should also evaluate the socioeconomic and geographical patterns of height and BMI, the researchers say.

First published: Nov 2020

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