In recent years an increasing, though not entirely conclusive, body of evidence has been emerging to support the contention that whole-food, plant-based diets offer the best hope of good health and long life for human beings. There is increasing interest in this concept among certain sectors of the population, while other groups continue to suffer from high rates of diet-related chronic disease.
There is a small but growing movement in the United States promoting the benefits of plant-based diets as a means of regaining lost health and preventing future disease in adults. As the United Kingdom is following US trends with rising rates of diet-related chronic disease, it seems appropriate to learn from their experience and apply similar mitigating techniques here.
However by the time a child reaches adulthood and gains autonomy over his or her food choices, many of these choices will be “hard-wired” and, due to the force of habit, extremely difficult to change. The most critical age for establishing healthy eating patterns for life is therefore early childhood. In addition, many diet-related chronic diseases that generally become apparent in adulthood actually have their beginnings early in life. For example, 1 in 5 children currently has an abnormal lipid profile [Dr Meeike Kusters, RCPCH Annual Conference 2013], and atherosclerosis (the furring of the arteries that is the precursor of heart attacks and strokes] has been shown (in autopsy studies) to begin as early as 3 years old.
Heart disease is our number one killer in the UK, and rates are set to rise, partly as a consequence of rising levels of obesity in the population. The prevalence of obesity in England has more than tripled in the last 25 years[i] while the latest Health Survey for England (HSE) data shows that in England in 2010:
- 62.8% of adults (aged 16 or over) were overweight or obese
- 30.3% of children (aged 2-15) were overweight or obese
- 26.1% of all adults and 16% of all children were obese
By 2050 the prevalence of obesity is predicted to affect 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and 25% of children (Foresight 2007)[ii]. This is clearly a health time-bomb, with today’s children looking set to live shorter lives than their parents[iii].
However cardiovascular disease in adults has been shown to be entirely preventable by maintaining a cholesterol level below 150mg/dl, and where established disease is present it has been shown to be reversible by reducing levels to below this threshold. This low level is achievable by following a low-fat, whole-food plant-based diet.[iv] Currently very few people are aware of this fact, including cardiologists and heart disease patients who continue to undergo costly and invasive treatments with significant associated risks and side-effects, for a disease that need never develop in the first place. It is essential that this information be made widely available, and in such a way that individuals may be empowered to use it, if we are to begin to stem the tide of dietary morbidity and mortality that is causing so much misery (and expense).
Many people are willing to accept the adoption of plant-based diets by independent adults as a valid lifestyle choice. However concerns are frequently raised about the adequacy of such diets for growing children. Any dietary recommendations that may be made to the population in general must be safe for all it’s members, including the most vulnerable: young children and the elderly. Addressing the question of what constitutes an optimal diet for children is therefore of significant public health consequence generally.
An appropriately supplemented (with vitamin B12) plant-based diet can meet all nutritional requirements (without the harmful components of animal foods such as saturated fat and cholesterol), is achievable for all ages, and has been shown anecdotally to have beneficial effects on a wide range of other chronic diseases in adults, including cancer, diabetes, obesity and some autoimmune conditions, as well as more minor complaints such as acne, constipation and fatigue. However to date relatively little formal scientific research has been carried out into its specific benefits, particularly among the child population, or how these may be leveraged within community or healthcare settings.
Kids Eat Plants believes that children do not generally decide what they eat. Adults responsible for their care determine the food environment in which children find themselves. Children select foods from those immediately and commonly available to them, to the degree to which they are allowed to do so. If available, children will naturally choose foods high in sugar, salt and fat, which are scarce in nature but common in today’s highly processed, obesogenic food environment that is driven largely by economic rather than health imperatives.
Dietary change is best undertaken as a group activity, as part of a family or community effort. Humans are social beings and eating is a social activity. It is very hard for individuals (even adults) to make radically different food choices from those around them. If real change is to be achieved, this is something we must all do together.
[iii] Unhealthy Lifestyles Will See British Children Die Before Their Parents. The Independent. 12th August 2013: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/unhealthy-lifestyles-will-see-british-children-die-before-their-parents-8757812.html Accessed on 23rd August 2013.
[iv] Resolving the Coronary Artery Disease Epidemic through Plant-Based Nutrition, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, Preventive Cardiology 2001; 4: 171-177: http://www.heartattackproof.com/resolving_cade.htm Accessed on 9th June 2013.