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Health risks of unhealthy eating habits

Published:Wednesday | November 29, 2023 | 12:06 AM

CHILDREN WITH poor eating habits do not get the right amounts of nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Children’s food preferences and eating habits are formed early in life, and the time that they spend in their early years provides an ideal opportunity to shape healthy behaviours.

It is evident that young children’s diets are providing more energy than they need, and consumption of fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre are still lower than recommendations.

Children who are overweight or obese in childhood are more likely to become obese adults; this often leads to long-term health issues, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers


A UNICEF report, The State of the World’s Children 2019, found that at least one in three children under five, or over 200 million, is either undernourished or overweight. Almost two in three children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains. This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death.

As children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong kind of diet, according to the report. Worldwide, close to 45 per cent of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables. Nearly 60 per cent do not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat.

As children grow older, their exposure to unhealthy food becomes alarming, driven largely by inappropriate marketing and advertising, the abundance of ultra-processed foods in cities, but also in remote areas, and increasing access to fast food and highly sweetened beverages.

For example, the report shows that 42 per cent of school-going adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consume carbonated, sugary soft drinks at least once a day and 46 per cent eat fast food at least once a week. Those rates go up to 62 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively, for adolescents in high-income countries.


As a result, overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide. From 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children between five and 19 years of age doubled from one in 10 to almost one in five. Ten times more girls and 12 times more boys in this age group suffer from obesity today than in 1975.

Children who are poorly nourished tend to have weaker immune systems, which increases their chances of illness. They are more likely to develop certain long-term health problems. These include:

• Bone thinning (osteoporosis) in later life;

• Heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) diseases. Eating foods high in fat, sugar, and salt as a child can increase the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) in adulthood;

• Type 2 diabetes. In children, this disease is linked to being overweight, being physically inactive, and having a family history of type 2 diabetes;

• Certain breathing problems, such as asthma in children who are overweight.

Being overweight puts children at risk for:

• Liver problems;

• Problems with bone growth in the legs or hip development;

• Gallstones;

• Early puberty;

• Polycystic ovary syndrome. This is a hormone imbalance that can cause problems with a girl’s periods and other health problems.

According to Dr Rivane Chybar-Virgo, medical doctor and health and wellness coach, to improve children’s nutritional status, especially in early childhood, both the child’s relationships with their caregivers and the provision of a suitable environment around them are important.

“Youth have diverse calorie and nutrient needs based on age and patterns of growth, development, and physical activity. As guardians and health professionals support children to incorporate healthy eating strategies at home, it is important to reinforce the impact of early dietary behaviours on future life stages,” Dr Chybar-Virgo said.

SOURCE: United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization