The effects of a poor diet in childhood and other harmful lifestyle habits start to be seen at the age of 20. This is when health problems more commonly found in older people such as cancer, diabetes, diseases cardiovascular and respiratory start to be detected. Emilia Gómez Pardo, a nutritionist and doctor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, believes that early childhood is critical to future health.
That’s why the health expert is encouraging the public to empty their refrigerators and pantries of “unhealthy food,” which she says is promoted by “predatory marketing” practices. Doing this will help prevent the negative health effects of poor dier, which are manifesting at increasingly younger ages.
Obesity is the most immediate and obvious consequence of a poor diet and other harmful habits, such as a sedentary lifestyle. According to Gómez Pardo, “the environment that surrounds us is absolutely obesogenic: everything is made in a way that makes people become overweight.” The prevalence of obesity among children is especially alarming. According to the data provided by Gómez Pardo, four out of 10 Spanish children are overweight: “It is an unacceptable situation because it is directly related to hypertension, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver, eating disorders and depression.”
Some of these pathologies, which typically affect elderly people, are already manifesting in childhood. Gómez Pardo says that “22% of Spanish children have high cholesterol levels, more than 200 milligrams, that is, what is stipulated for hypercholesterolemia in adults.” While 32% have hypertension.
“Millennials [born in the last two decades of the 20th century] have double the risk of contracting cancer due to the Western lifestyle and the negative effects of [poor diet] in childhood,” she explains. “Taking into account alcohol consumption and excess weight, it can be said that one in three tumors is connected with inadequate nutrition.”
What’s more, types of cancers that until now were only detected in adults are now being recorded at younger ages. According to Gómez Pardo’s estimates, it now takes half as many years as in previous generations for a person to build up the mutations that lead to the development of cancer.
“The most significant case is colorectal cancer, which has advanced its age of presentation,” she says. “There are studies that predict that, in the next decade, if the current lifestyle is maintained, there will be a 90% rise in colon cancer cases among people between the ages of 20 and 30, and a 124% rise in rectal cancer.”
“And everything indicates that poor nutrition is responsible for this dramatic rise,” says Gómez Pardo. “What’s more, younger generations around the world are experiencing earlier and longer-lasting exposure to excess adiposity [excess fat] during their lifetime than previous generations, which is translating into a significant increase in multiple myeloma and endometrial cancer.”
The goal is for children to reach adulthood without risk factors caused by poor diet. To achieve this, Gómez Pardo recommends parents “lead by example,” explaining that “lifestyle is inherited.” She encourages parents to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes, unsweetened dairy products, eggs, ham, fish, nuts and whole grains, and avoid unhealthy food – “anything that come in a package with many ingredients” – such as red meats, sausages, pâtés, cured meats and sweets, including those made at home.
“We are what we eat, but we eat what we buy and we end up eating it because we are human and because the products are designed for us to like them,” she says.
Dying sooner and in poorer health
Eating a healthy diet can prevent and delay many diseases. “Between 30% and 50% of cancers are attributable to modifiable risk factors,” explains Gómez Pardo
What’s more, eating a diverse diet with at least eight to 10 grams of soluble fiber a day can reduce microbial resistance to antibiotics in the intestines, according to a study published in mBio.
Microbes resistant to several commonly used drugs pose a big health risk. Their ability to resist drugs is related to the gut microbiome, as this is where microorganisms develop genetic strategies to survive contact with antibiotics.
According to Danielle Lemay, a molecular biologist from the US Agricultural Research Service and the lead author of the mBio study: “The results show that modifying diet has the potential to be a new weapon in the fight against resistance to antimicrobials.” She adds: “It’s not about eating an exotic diet, but a diverse diet, adequate in fiber.”
Soluble fiber is found in grains such as barley and oats, legumes such as beans, lentils and peas, seeds such as chia, nuts such as walnuts, fruits, and vegetables such as carrots, artichokes, broccoli and pumpkin.
In addition, a healthy diet also improves mental health. Young men between the ages of 18 and 25 with symptoms of depression reported improved mood when they changed switched to the Mediterranean diet, according to a study by researchers at the University of Technology in Sydney in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In this study, the participants ate more vegetables, legumes, whole grains, oily fish, olive oil and salt-free nuts. While their intake of processed foods, sugar and red meat was reduced. “There are many reasons why we scientifically believe that food affects mood,” says Jessica Bayes, the lead author of the research paper. “For example, about 90% of serotonin, a chemical that helps us feel happy, is produced in the gut by microbes. There is emerging evidence that these microbes can communicate with the brain through the vagus nerve, in what is called the gut-brain axis.”
“In order to have healthy microbes, we need to feed them fiber, which is found in legumes, fruits, and vegetables,” she explains.