Paediatric Lifestyle Medicine 4

Now that I am entering the final years of my paediatric training (ST6), people keep asking me what I want to specialise in. At the moment I am training in “general” paediatrics, which is a kind of specialty in and of itself, although many general paediatricians also have special interests in one thing or another.

Rather awkwardly, I find myself interested mainly in a specialty that doesn’t exist (although it overlaps with many that do): paediatric lifestyle medicine. Well, it doesn’t exist yet anyway, but perhaps it should?

In 2012, Joan Younger Meek MD, Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education at Florida State University College of Medicine, wrote an article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine entitled “Pediatric Lifestyle Medicine”(1). Dr Meek is a busy woman: as well as being medically trained she is also a Registered Dietician and a Board Certified Lactation Consultant with interests in breastfeeding and infant and child nutrition.

In her article she defines paediatric lifestyle medicine as essentially preventive, encompassing “optimal nutrition, maintaining an appropriate weight, developing an active lifestyle, and avoidance of tobacco, alcohol and other substances of abuse“. She also discusses breastfeeding promotion, prevention of sexual risk behaviours (for STI’s and teenage pregnancy), wearing seatbelts and reducing screen time. Sadly, all of the above issues relate substantially to the paediatric population (under 16’s) in the UK.

Various professional groups are interested in one or all of the above issues: midwives, lactation consultants, dieticians, community paediatricians and child protection nurses and doctors, genitourinary specialists, gynaecologists, smoking cessation advisors, mental health professionals, general practitioners, bariatric surgeons and public health professionals to name but a few. In some places specialist services exist for children and young people affected by these issues, but provision is patchy and adult services are not always best placed to provide care to this age group.

So what might be the role of a paediatric lifestyle specialist within the NHS? To some extent this would be dictated by existing local services and need. But here are a few specific thoughts…

Firstly, unlike public health professionals who are concerned more with population-wide initiatives (service developments, legislation and manipulating the built/food environment to better serve the aim of good health), paediatric lifestyle specialists would be practicing clinicians seeing patients in outpatient clinics and on the wards. They would use lifestyle interventions to treat as well as prevent disease. They would see both simple and complex cases and liase with many other professionals to make appropriate referrals, for example where an overweight child was felt to have an underlying hormonal problem, or where a significant mental health issue was identified. They would be experts in evidence-based lifestyle interventions for a range of common problems, and they would be engaged in an active programme of clinical research (including the systematic review of existing studies) to assess the effectiveness of such interventions and develop new and innovative approaches to the non-pharmacological treatment of lifestyle-related physical disease.

Just to be clear, this does not mean they would not prescribe appropriate medications if and when necessary – they would. But the literature relating to nutritional interventions alone is huge and growing all the time, such that it is hard for anyone to keep up with it. It is reasonable that within a system as large and complex as the NHS, at least a few individuals are charged with this task, and with providing education and advice to everyone else who hasn’t got time. Prescribing medications safely also requires specialist knowledge, and therefore a somewhat different focus. Ideally, for conditions responsive to lifestyle interventions, medications could be reduced and even stopped under careful medical supervision following successful treatment, thus reducing the NHS pharmaceutical bill.

In the US at least, lifestyle medicine is a burgeoning specialty for adults, and the European Society of Lifestyle Medicine gives a definition, here. Dr Michael Greger of is one leading thinker in this field. But what sort of paediatric conditions might be amenable to treatment? Obesity is an obvious contender, but otherwise this is a controversial question, as many common conditions are not recognised as lifestyle-related in medical circles, despite the existence of evidence suggesting the contrary. Strong, conclusive evidence is generally lacking in the paediatric age group, due to a general reluctance to conduct studies in children and young people, so there is a lot of work to be done.

I appreciate that this is a controversial list, worthy of a great deal of debate, not to mention a much greater level of clinical experience than we have now and many many more well designed and executed studies and reviews, but here is my list anyway of conditions occurring in the paediatric population that may, in some or all cases, be improved or even cured by lifestyle interventions: overweight and obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, asthma and allergy, eczema, acne and psoriasis, dysmenorrhoea (painful periods) and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), chronic/functional constipation, non-specific abdominal pain, nutritional deficiencies such as rickets or iron deficiency anaemia, recurrent ear infections, autoimmune conditions such as arthritis, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), and perhaps likely to be the most contested of all – cancer.

What else? Paediatric lifestyle specialists would need to conduct a full initial assessment of patients, remaining alert to the possibility of underlying/unrecognised organic disease. They would follow the usual clinical pathways to achieving a diagnosis or at least developing a list of active problems, and they would formulate a plan of action appropriate to each patient. They would order relevant investigations such as imaging or blood tests, and they would be specialists at assessing the complex social and psychological conditions that often underlie lifestyle-related conditions. They would retain a family-focused approach to treatment, and would be experts in the science and art of motivation, combining excellent communication with coaching, counselling and psychotherapeutic skills. They may administer treatment in both individual and group settings, utilising the benefits of peer support and the multidisciplinary team (dieticians, clinical psychologists, physiotherapists etc.). They may also liase with local public health teams and hospitals regarding preventative service provisions, and sit on relevant committees.

My disappointment in reading Dr Meek’s article was that it did not spend more time considering the evidence relating to behaviour change, and specifically what works and what does not. From one perspective, lifestyle medicine may be conceptualised as the science and practice of behaviour change to achieve health benefit. Most professionals agree at least broadly that breastfeeding, healthy eating, exercise and not smoking are desirable, but most raise their hands in despair when considering how to actually effect such change in their patients. Evidence exists however, and behavioural change is possible. We need to leverage that knowledge for the benefit of all. The need is great.



1. Pediatric Lifestyle Medicine. Joan Younger Meek. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 2012; Vol.6, No.6:440-447


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4 thoughts on “Paediatric Lifestyle Medicine

  • Sophie

    You are so correct; the need is great. I think Paediatric Lifestyle Medicine should be a cornerstone of all medicine! Could I also enlarge the entry “depression” to include “psychiatric health” generally? There is good evidence linking a lack of wide and strong social support throughout life, but especially during childhood, to the later onset of psychosis. Dopamine mediates the sense of belonging to a group, and so it seems (to me) that social isolation can act as a precursor to dopamine dysfunction, which in turn is implicated in psychosis. Surely there is scope to trial early-intervention programmes in paediatric populations already known to be at risk of later schizophrenia. It would have to be a longitudinal study, so no real data for maybe ten years, but they do grow up fast…

    • admin Post author

      Yes, but what study intervention would you propose to combat social isolation/dopamine dysfunction in childhood?? You would need very large numbers to see a statistical difference in incidence rates at the end of ten years…

      On a different note, I spoke to one of my consultants about this yesterday who is a general paediatrician, and he said he believed he already practiced lifestyle medicine – just without the name badge. Lots of the elements are relevant to lots of different specialties, but as a specialty in its own right… I think we are a long way off anyone getting paid to do this work 🙁

      P.S. One of the studies I would love to do is a prospective matched cohort study of vegan and non-vegan children growing up in the UK/Europe…

      • Sophie

        I agree, thinking laterally there is plenty of scope to make a difference. I was reflecting on holiday in Germany this year as to why I am in medicine at all; the answer became clearer when we were visiting the (thriving) co-housing eco-village quarter of the city were staying in. One reason the project has succeeded has been the involvement of qualified professionals (e.g. transport engineers, play therapists, educationalists) in setting up a human-friendly environment. The role of medics in embedding health within lifestyle choices & the built/occupational/nutritional environment seems to me to be central. In other words, hippies need more doctors, and doctors need many more hippies. On the longitudinal intervention – there are a few things that could perhaps be tried out. Drum circles might be one (dopamine & perception of rhythm being linked), forest schools another? It’s easy to identify children who are already at risk in terms of known factors (e.g. first & second degree relatives affected, maternal prenatal infection), so facilitated access to these interventions, perhaps through school rather than just through parents, might keep confounding as low as is practically achievable. RCTs are of course great data-wise, but I think an over-reliance on them is part of the reason we have such a paucity of evidence on non-pharmaceutical interventions, diet of course included.

  • Sophiya

    I realize people are going to be different, but I wonder what individuals in the field truly find stressful. Maybe the biggest stressor is just trying to get through all of the patients in a timely manner. Maybe what makes a day good or bad isn’t even related to treating patients.