Why are children at risk for adult-onset diseases?

Senior paediatric expert Dr Narayanaswamy discusses the culprits behind and the dangers from adult-onset diseases in children.

ByDr. Narayanaswamy

Published May 23, 2024 | 4:00 PMUpdatedMay 23, 2024 | 4:00 PM

diseases in children

There has been a rise in early risk factors for chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension in children.

Recent findings from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) indicate that a significant number of children are showing early signs of chronic diseases traditionally associated with adults, such as diabetes and hypertension.

This trend is not confined to overweight children; even those with normal body weight are exhibiting altered metabolic markers.

As a paediatric expert, I find this particularly alarming, given the long-term health implications for our young population.

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The culprits: Unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyles

The root of this emerging health crisis is poor dietary habits and a lack of physical activity.

The ICMR report highlights that 56.4 percent of India’s disease burden can be attributed to poor nutrition.

A significant portion of children’s diets, especially among those with limited access to diverse foods, rely heavily on cereals.

While cereals are a staple, an over-reliance on them at the expense of other food groups can lead to deficiencies in essential macronutrients and micronutrients.

The proliferation of highly processed foods exacerbates this issue.

Processed foods — often high in hidden sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium — contribute to the development of metabolic disorders.

Additionally, these foods are typically low in essential nutrients, further compounding the risk of chronic diseases.

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The dangers: Hidden sugars, processed foods

One of the most insidious threats to children’s health is the prevalence of hidden sugars in processed foods.

These sugars are not always obvious on food labels and can be found in items marketed as healthy, such as flavoured yoghurts, breakfast cereals, and granola bars.

Excessive sugar consumption is linked to a host of health issues, including obesity, insulin resistance, and eventually type-2 diabetes.

Processed foods also contain unhealthy trans fats and high levels of sodium, contributing to cardiovascular problems and hypertension.

The convenience and palatability of these foods often make them a preferred choice for busy families. However, the long-term health costs are substantial.

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Diverse nutrients for healthy development

To mitigate these risks, it is crucial to ensure that children receive a balanced diet rich in diverse nutrients.

Essential macronutrients — proteins, fats, and carbohydrates — must be consumed in appropriate proportions.

Proteins are vital for growth and development, fats are necessary for brain health and energy, and carbohydrates are the primary source of energy.

In addition to macronutrients, micronutrients play a pivotal role in maintaining health.

Vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, and iron are critical for immune function, bone health, and overall development.

A diet incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can provide these essential nutrients.

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Childhood obesity and promoting physical activity

Childhood obesity is a significant risk factor for chronic diseases. To combat this, parents and caregivers must prioritise healthy eating habits and physical activity.

Here are some strategies to address these issues:

  • Educate on nutrition: Teaching children about the benefits of healthy eating can empower them to make better food choices. Schools and community programmes can play a pivotal role in this education.
  • Promote home-cooked meals: Preparing meals at home allows for greater control over ingredients and portion sizes. Encouraging the consumption of fresh, whole foods over processed options can significantly reduce health risks.
  • Encourage physical activity: Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and overall well-being. Children should be encouraged to engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. This can include sports, recreational activities, and even active play.
  • Limit screen time: Reducing the amount of time children spend on sedentary activities such as watching TV or playing video games can help increase their physical activity levels.

(The author is a senior paediatric expert and the founder of Athreya Hospital in Bengaluru.)