Children eat worse now than they did 20 years ago
Nutritionists warn of loss of Mediterranean diet: a lot of processed foods and little fruit and vegetables are eaten
Santa Coloma de GramenetOn the shelves of any Catalan shop you can find dozens of biscuits and sweets, sauces and cereals and pre-cooked dishes such as pizzas. All these products compete with each other with the most eye-catching packaging and offers to tempt families who have not yet decided what to have for a snack or dinner. On the other hand, to locate a packet of plain yoghurts with no added sugars, you have to make a lot of effort and read many labels. Unhealthy food is on offer everywhere, according to Public Health Agency of Catalonia dietician and nutritionist Maria Manera. This overexposure to processed products has a direct impact on the population's diet and health, especially children and young people who are still growing. In Catalonia, 24.4% of children under 12 are overweight and 10.1% are obese, which may lead to metabolic diseases such as diabetes. The causes are to be found in lifestyle habits, such as a sedentary lifestyle, but are mainly due to poor diet.
"These data make us think that children have worse diets because of the food supply to which they are exposed," says Manera. The president of the College of Dietitians-Nutritionists of Catalonia, Roser Martí, who says that children ate better twenty or thirty years ago, when there were not so many industrial products within their reach, thinks the same. "The food was fresh, priority was given to local and seasonal products, and families spent more time in the kitchen and shared meals," she says. Mireia Termes, a dietician and nutritionist at the Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, also believes that the incorporation of processed foods (which undergo changes in order to be preserved) and ultra-processed foods (so many ingredients and additives are added that they make the original food unrecognisable) are a threat to young people's diet . "Children's palates are getting accustomed to sweeter flavours that replace those of fresh food and the idea of the Mediterranean diet is gradually being abandoned, the diet of a lifetime, that of our parents and grandparents and which is healthier," she laments.
A complete, balanced and healthy diet prioritizes plant-based products, including fruits and vegetables, pulses, nuts, cereals and whole grains, and in general is completed with good quality animal-based produce (white and blue fish, preferably lean meats, eggs and dairy products). The food must be fresh, minimally processed, preferably seasonal and local, and the consumption of products with a high content of sugars, unhealthy fats and salt, present in pastries, snacks, fizzy drinks and precooked meals, must be limited to a minimum. "We are in favour of there being a certain availability of sweeter foods, but as long as they appear in a very specific way and that both families and children associate it to very specific moments", argues Gemma Salvador, a dietician and nutritionist at Catalonia's Public Health Agency.
However, shops, especially supermarkets and department stores, are environments that greatly bias choice. "Good, cheap products such as a handful of pulses and some wholemeal bread and broccoli are outweighed by those that are expensive and bad. And these, when they are rich in iron, are poor in vitamins, and when they are low in salt, they have too much fat," Manera summarises. Basic and inexpensive foods are the most advisable for a healthy diet. "But around food there is a very powerful industry, often with misleading claims, which bombards a population that cannot always be sufficiently attentive," Salvador says.
The expert believes not all families are equally empowered and many get caught up in what seems easier or more attractive. For example, whether it requires less time in the kitchen or whether a single package will feed more people. "And this depends in large part on the social class to which they belong. What affects these families the most is the lack of time and lack of knowledge to choose healthier options with few resources," says Salvador, who argues that it is essential to concentrate efforts on closing ranks against the advertising of these harmful foods.
Rise of restrictive diets
As in countries such as the United Kingdom, Portugal and Norway, the Spanish government has announced advertising of sugary drinks and fatty foods aimed at children will be banned from next year. The dietitians consulted believe this is a good measure because it helps shape awareness about the need to reduce the consumption of processed products, not only due to a matter of individual health, but also globally and for the planet. But Manera warns that "so far neither population surveys nor the actual consumption show a real change in trend".
On the other hand, the call to increase vegetable protein and progressively reduce animal protein out of climate awareness and animal welfare concerns has grown – in school canteens this has been the case for 15 years – and restrictive or alternative diets such as vegetarianism and veganism have increased significantly in recent years. In fact, many children and young people are asking their families to take the step and give up animal-based foods to a greater or lesser degree. "And there is no problem. If they are planned with a paediatrician or specialist and properly supplemented [for vitamins B12 and D and iron], these diets are compatible with good health and growth," says Termes. But Salvador warns: "This does not mean that you have to buy products specially designed for these diets, which are highly processed. In these cases, organic and fresh food is still essential"
The experts have a very different opinion about the restrictions of specific foods, such as milk or gluten, without a medical indication. "Milk is a very unprocessed food. Dairy products are bad if you drink too much or if they are very sugary, but with a moderate intake they are essential for children's diets. If you want to eliminate it because it is of animal origin, go ahead, but you have to be aware that you have to take more sources of calcium," explains Salvador. For example, eating dried fruit, cabbage, broccoli, lentils, prawns or clams. "It is not because we don't like dairy products or because we discard them that we will have an insufficient intake of calcium", Martí confirms.
Regarding eliminating gluten, nutritionists say that it does not bring any benefits. "Only people with an intolerance or allergy defined by a specialist should go without it. To remove it is to needlessly complicate your life: you will have to buy a more expensive product with more sugar, which is not in your interest", concludes Manera.