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Dr. Claire Kehoe Headshot

'Five-A-Day' and the Health of the Nation

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Two new reports about the health of the nation were released recently. The first by the British Heart Foundation which highlighted how unhealthy the eating habits of children are. The 5-a-day message for fruit and vegetables is not being followed and based on the results, they calculated that a typical child's diet includes one packet of crisps, one chocolate bar, one bag of chewy jelly sweets, one fizzy drink and one energy drink a day.

Our memories of childhood include fond memories of treats, but five high calorie, high sugar snacks a day is not a treat - it is a scary habit. When I read reports like this, it doesn't surprise me that childhood obesity rates in the UK are the highest in Europe.

The second was published by the EU Commission, which showed that adult women in the UK are the heaviest in the 19 European countries surveyed, with 23.9% of women classed as obese. Men are not that far behind woman with obesity rates of 22.1%. Both of these findings are linked because our eating habits and attitudes to food are developed through childhood and unfortunately, if you are overweight as a child, you are more likely to grow up to be overweight.

If your normal diet as a child includes these calorie dense, nutrient-poor foods, the pattern sets in and it gets increasingly difficult to break it in adulthood. Coupled with that is the fact that many of the chronic medical conditions associated with excess weight don't manifest themselves until a long time has passed. You can feel healthy and live your life whilst being overweight making it easy to ignore your expanding waistline and the damage building up inside. This makes it even more difficult for us to address our weight because we genuinely don't feel unwell. This is like a smoker ignoring the advice on lung cancer. These are progressive diseases however and you can feel well when you are getting increasingly ill.

The good news is that you can reduce children's risk factors for developing diabetes and heart disease by helping them to eat well and lose weight. If, as an adult, you seriously address your weight, even after a lifetime of being overweight, you can reverse many of the medical issues associated with Type 2 diabetes.

The solution is clear to me and that is, if families eat well and get active, everybody benefits. I know from working in the weight loss industry for over 9 years, that anecdotally many people who thought they were well before losing weight, didn't realise that their normal wasn't normal at all. They lived with low energy levels and thought they weren't getting any sleep. They wondered why they craved food and got irritable throughout the day and didn't realise that the foods they were eating and the weight they were carrying was the underlying cause. It is only after changing their eating habits that the benefits of losing weight and then maintaining it were clear to them. They had a new lease of life and knew what being well and healthy really felt like.

If you address your own weight and share this with your family, your children's diets will improve, as will their weight and risk of future disease. Improving fruit and veg intake is a great place to start, as snacks can be replaced with a piece of fruit and meals, including lunch boxes, can be nutritionally enhanced with extra salad or vegetable servings. It is not easy changing eating habits, neither your own or your children's, but it can be done. I'm not saying that children can't enjoy some chocolate in their diets, but it should be enjoyed in moderation, not the everyday habit it is becoming. And as for adults, the short-term reward you may feel after eating high calorie junk food will never replace the value of your long-term health and wellbeing.

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