Free Press: Startling results in youth nutrition study
The following is an op-ed written by Joyce Slater, professor of community nutrition in the department of food and human nutritional sciences and Alan Katz, a professor of community health sciences and family medicine at the U of M. They are the FANS study’s principal investigators. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 25, 2023.
Children today are the adults of tomorrow. As today’s adults we are responsible for equipping our kids with the best tools to be healthy now and in the future.
Unfortunately, with respect to their nutrition we are failing them. Appropriate nutrition is an essential requirement for good health and well-being. Children who do not have adequate food, including the necessary balance of nutrients, have trouble learning, are more susceptible to chronic disease like diabetes, and are more likely to suffer from other illnesses as they age.
Our research team is conducting the Food and Nutrition Security for Manitoba Youth (FANS) study, and results show that that the majority of the almost 1,600 Grade 9s surveyed have diets that put them at risk of future health problems, and one in five come from families who have challenges purchasing enough healthy foods.
We collected data from 1,587 Grade 9 students throughout Manitoba on their food behaviours, dietary intakes and food security. Many skipped breakfast and/or lunch during the week. Ninety-four percent were not eating enough vegetables and fruits, more than two-thirds did not consume enough milk and alternatives, and over half were not consuming enough meat and alternatives. They did, however, have a daily average of four servings of ‘other foods’ (highly processed salty snacks, baked sweets, candy, sweetened drinks). This resulted in most participants having inadequate fibre, calcium and vitamin D, and more than half consuming excess sodium and saturated fat. Consequently, when we applied the Healthy Eating Index to participants’ diets, only a shocking two per cent had a diet classified as ‘good’ quality, while 70 per cent had diets that ‘need improvement’ and 28 per cent had ‘poor’ diets.
Years of research clearly shows that dietary patterns like the one observed in the FANS study put our children on the path to future debilitating health problems. Research also shows that dietary patterns established in childhood tend to persist into adulthood. One of the biggest (but not the only) concerns related to poor diet is Type 2 diabetes, which is growing exponentially around the globe, and increasing in younger and younger age groups. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes in Canadian children and youth is projected to increase four-fold in the next few decades. This is almost entirely preventable, but there are few scaled-up prevention strategies evident in Manitoba.
While sub-optimal nutrition was observed in most of the FANS study participants regardless of where they live, the associated health risks are compounded for the 20 per cent of participants who were identified in the FANS study as ‘food insecure’, or lacking regular access to affordable, healthy food. This jumps to 37 per cent in the northern region of the province where food prices are higher, and availability of healthy options may be compromised due to issues such as transportation costs.
Our FANS data was collected in the 2018-19 school year. We know from other studies that children’s diets got worse during the COVID pandemic. We also know that food cost inflation has skyrocketed in the past year, and food bank usage has doubled in Manitoba. This means our study findings are likely an underestimate of the current problem.
Turning this nutritional Titanic around will take more than exhorting parents and kids to ‘do better’. We need to recognize that children and youth live in food environments (physical and virtual) that continuously encourage consuming highly processed, nutritionally poor convenience and fast foods. We need to recognize that kids have few opportunities to really learn about food and nutrition as a cornerstone of their health and well-being.
We need to recognize that when families don’t have adequate incomes or access to food, nutrition takes a back seat. We must act to give all kids the tools and opportunities to develop healthy relationships with food. Food and nutrition literacy education, and universal school meals, would be a start and should be available to all Manitoba children. Food insecurity, especially in northern communities, must be addressed. To maintain the status quo will be immensely expensive in terms of human suffering and health care costs.
For more information on the FANS study see: https://www.fanlit.org/fans