In most normal, healthy children, the genetic potential is helped toward fulfillment by healthful, invigorating environmental conditions. The quality of children’s nutrition and health care strongly influences their development and the general quality of life they experience.
Unfortunately, a majority of children in the world, and many of the children in the United States, receive neither proper nutrition nor adequate medical attention. They do not get enough protein for building body cells, enough vitamins and minerals for structural development, or enough carbohydrates for energy. All over the world, tens of thousands of children die each day of hunger, a situation that is difficult to believe can actually happen. In the United States alone, the estimates of children who experience hunger range from 2 to 5 million, which is likely to increase as economic circumstances for the poor become even more precarious. What makes these tragedies even more unbelievable is that the reason for these deaths is not food shortages, but the politics of food.
When people are poor, they are usually malnourished. Chronic malnutrition, which more often than not begins before birth, can produce permanent physical deformities and mental incapacity. Unfortunately, this damage stays with the child and may interact with other dimensions of the child’s development. Sandy Zeskind and Craig Ramey studied the effect that two settings, different in their intellectual stimulation, might have on fetally malnourished children.
The results of the study showed that the negative effects of malnutrition on intellectual, behavioral, and social development continued through 3 years of age when the environment was not supportive. On the other hand, in a supportive environment, the effects of malnutrition continued to decrease.
Malnutrition can result from the consumption of “junk foods” that provide only “empty calories,” that is, refined carbohydrates. In a consumer-oriented culture like ours, it is difficult to keep a child from eating presweetened cereals and candy bars and drinking soft drinks. Day after day the child sees this kind of food recommended on television by favorite cartoon characters and TV personalities. Yet when junk foods make up a large part of the diet, the result may be nutritional deficiencies, often accompanied by obesity. It is not unusual for the child who is overweight to also be undernourished.
Illness in young children because of nutritional deficiencies is also a particularly serious problem among the poor in the United States, and as the number of poor children increases and as health care availability declines, even more children are suffering the effects of malnutrition. Although each generation tends to produce larger, healthier babies than the generation before it, millions of children continue to suffer from respiratory illness, bad teeth, and other conditions related to an inadequate diet. Many pediatric specialists in this country have assailed the health care system, especially its inadequacy for poor children.
Children who eat poorly will suffer as adults as well. According to some nutrition researchers, the average American’s diet promotes heart disease, tooth decay, diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain common cancers. A report by the National Institutes of Mental Health discussed the link between diet and cancer and how reducing red meat and fat consumption and increasing fiber intake may lessen one’s chances of contracting cancer.
Preferences for foods that constitute an unhealthful diet start early in life. Parents may offer sugar-rich foods as a reward or a distraction or an attempt to show their affection (“Here, have a cookie and stop crying”). Desserts rich in sugar and fat may be served to the family as a show of love and affection, and in some cases this can be the beginning of more serious eating disorders of the kind we will discuss later. Salty foods are now considered by many medical researchers to be even more unhealthful than sweets. A cursory look at cereal packages in the stores finds that even the “high-nutrition” packaged cereals contain 10 times the necessary sodium levels in a 1-ounce serving. The saltine or pretzel so often offered to placate children is really no better than a cookie. A raw carrot, a quarter of an apple, or a slice of rye or whole wheat bread will soothe a child just as well. In order to reduce salt intake, salads and cooked foods can be liberally seasoned with herbs. A variety of foods should be offered, although many children tend to be conservative in their food choices. A nutritious (and delicious) dessert can be part of the meal and not a reward. Another good principle is to allow children to leave food on their plates if they wish. Better yet, give small servings to start and then more if desired. This strategy helps avoid wasting food and eliminates some of the tension that can arise over “cleaning your plate.” After a great deal of controversy, the federal government has finally settled on a set of nutritional guidelines. The typical four food groups (cereals, dairy, meat, and vegetables and fruit) are gone, replaced by a pyramid with bread, cereal, rice, and pasta at the bottom (signifying the most servings) and fats, oils, and sweets at the top (signifying the least). The guidelines suggest a change in the federal government’s view on nutrition, now stressing a low-fat and low-cholesterol diet.
- MedLine Plus (National Institutes of Health), http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000404.htm
- Merck & , Inc. (n.d.). Malnutrition. Retrieved from http://www.merck.com/mrkshared/mmanual/section1/chapter2/2a.jsp
- Schwartz-Nobel, L. (2002). Hunger and malnutrition in New York: HarperCollins.