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16.05
2024

Why our children’s diet needs to change

A healthy diet is very important at all ages, but particularly during childhood. Yet what we know so far about our children’s diet is deeply concerning, with around 15% of school-age children in Switzerland overweight or obese. So how do we set kids up with the healthiest start in life? Julia Vincentini works at Unisanté on menuCH-Kids, the first national survey in Switzerland to collect data about children’s eating habits. She tells us more.

 

Julia, how important is it that children eat a healthy diet?

It’s incredibly important. In the short term, it can affect children’s cardiovascular health, cholesterol levels and liver function. More and more kids are also developingobesity at an early age. All of this can accelerate or delay the onset of puberty and affect cognitive development, which in turn affects how well they do at school. In short, nutrition has a huge impact on children’s health and well-being.

 

What about in the long term? Do the eating habits formed in childhood have an impact on our health as adults?

Absolutely. An adult who ate an unhealthy diet as a child is at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. And it makes sense: the dietary habits you form as a child become deeply embedded. It takes a huge effort to change these as an adult. Sadly, many people never do. It’s possible to change your habits at any age, but it stands you in good stead to form good habits when you’re young.

Of course, nutrition is part of a bigger picture where physical exercise, genetics, sleep quality and mental health all play a role. All of these need to be considered.

In Switzerland, data in this area is limited – menuCH-Kids is the first study of its kind

What do we know about children’s eating habits?

In Switzerland, data in this area is limited – menuCH-Kids is the first study of its kind. But lots of other European countries have done similar studies over the past few years, so we can learn from them.

What these other countries have found is that the diet of most children and teenagers is far from ideal. They don’t eat enough vegetables, which can result in vitamin deficiencies. On the other hand, they eat too much meat and sugar. They also have unhealthy habits, like skipping breakfast or snacking a lot. And overall, children – like many adults – ingest too many calories and saturated fatty acids. Their intake of ultra-processed foods and sugar is also too high, which has a detrimental impact on metabolism and health.

Building on this data from neighbouring countries, we’re trying to learn more aboutwhat’s specifically happening here in Switzerland. This is why the study menuCH-Kids, which collects data about the dietary habits and health of children in Switzerland, is so important.

 

How can we make sure children get into healthy eating habits?

Parents have a role to play, of course, but we also need to empower children to make the right choices. For instance, teenagers aren’t eating at home all the time. They have the freedom to buy food when they’re out – and their choices are heavily influenced by their peers, even if their parents have attempted to instil good habits. So we need to give them the information and tools to make healthy choices – and not influence each other to choose unhealthy foods.

 

Whose responsibility should it be that children eat well?

It’s partly the responsibility of parents and children themselves to make healthy choices. But this is difficult in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to choose a healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t help that our supermarket aisles are full of unhealthy foods – and that marketing for these products is designed to appeal to children.

Switzerland tends to take a laissez-faire attitude to packaging and advertising, compared with other countries that enforce stricter rules. In my view, children’s health should be a public health responsibility when it comes to informing and educating, but also when it comes to creating an environment that encourages healthier choices.

Of course, there are several government campaigns geared towards improving children’s diets. One of these is a programme called PAPAE that takes place in schools in Vaud to educate children and parents about diet and the importance of exercise. Another that is present in school canteens and nurseries is called Fourchette verte; it involves giving children healthy food that is also environmentally friendly. Although all of this is a starting point, much more needs to be done.

A public health priority should be to roll out policies that protect the environment while promoting health

Any public health initiatives you’re particularly keen to see?

Nutrition is closely related to the environment. One-third of the impact we have on our planet comes from our food system. This is huge. Even if we focus only on our own, and not our planet’s, health – which I don’t advocate we do – there’s a clear need to care for our environment. Think of pollution, heatwaves, water and soil contamination. This all leads to heavy metals, microplastics, pesticides and endocrine disruptors (chemicals that interfere with hormones) making their way into the food we eat. What affects our planet, affects our own health.

A public health priority should be to roll out policies that protect the environment while promoting health. For instance, governments should be encouraging people to eat seasonal and local foods. Eating tomatoes or mangoes all year round is not normal, or at least it shouldn’t be. We need to eat locally as much as possible to limit our environmental impact.

We also need to shift to eating more plant-based foods. I’m not saying we need to completely cut out meat, but we shouldn’t be eating it every day. Animal products produce more greenhouse gas emissions than any other foods, and their impact on health can also be negative – for instance, processed meat is associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s perfectly possible to eat a diet that’s both healthy and environmentally friendly.

 

Any last thought you’d like to leave us with when it comes to children’s health?

Perhaps that I’d love to see more of a dialogue between the government and the food industry when it comes to nutrition. A dialogue that constantly asks, ‘What can we be doing better?’ More strict regulations towards the food industry are likely needed to provide a healthier environment. I strongly feel more can be done and that this would benefit all of us, and especially children – setting them up for the healthiest possible future.

Julia Vincentini
Coordinator of National Nutrition Survey menuCH-Kids, Unisanté
Julia Vincentini is a Project Manager at Unisanté. Her work involves coordinating the national nutrition survey menuCH-Kids, which collects data about the dietary habits and health of children in Switzerland.

Julia has long been passionate about nutrition and health. She holds a BSc and MScin Life Sciences Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and did her MSc thesis at Harvard Medical School on the link between nutrition and neurodegenerative diseases.

Julia joined Unisanté in 2021, where she was soon promoted to Project Manager of menuCH-Kids. Alongside this role, Julia is pursuing a PhD at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and Unisanté in the field of nutritional epidemiology. More specifically, she is investigating the interplay between nutrition, health and the environmental impact of diet, with a focus on children.

Unisanté
The overall mission of Unisanté is to promote and improve the health of individuals and populations in their environment, regardless of their socio-economic status, through prevention, ambulatory care and public health measures in an academic setting.
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One approach, two studies: menuCH and menuCH-Kids

From the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO)

The FSVO initiated and funded menuCH, the first national nutrition survey in Switzerland. This marked a milestone in describing food consumption and the dietary habits of Swiss adults. Since no national nutrition data had previously beenavailable, it addressed a clear gap – and resulted in over 40 scientific publications.

The results of the menuCH survey that took place in 2014–2015 revealed a concerning imbalance in the diets of Swiss adults. Key findings indicated insufficient intake of fruits, vegetables, dairy and legumes, alongside excessive consumption of sweets, salty snacks and meat – which exceeded Swiss recommendations threefold. The data was also analysed by subgroups (e.g. linguistic region, gender, age group), which informed forthcoming federal dietary recommendations scheduled for publication this year.

Recognising the lack of comparable data for children in Switzerland, the government launched the menuCH-Kids survey. Building on menuCH’s methodology, a consortium led by Unisanté is collecting data for a year (2023–2024) acrossSwitzerland’s different linguistic regions. A notable difference with this survey is thaturine and blood samples are being collected. This means that researchers are better able to assess participants’ health and nutritional status.

The ongoing menuCH-Kids survey targets children aged 6–17 and will last one year to capture seasonal variations. As well as urine and blood samples, data collection includes food consumption assessments, physical measurements (height, weight, waist/hip circumference, blood pressure), lifestyle factors (e.g. physical activity, screen time), and health and socioeconomic indicators. These data will help withfact-based risk assessment, policymaking and scientific research.

More information can be found on the menuCH and menuCH-Kids web pages.

 

menuCH-Kids partnerships

The menuCH-Kids survey is mandated by the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) and implemented by a consortium led by Unisanté. Its members include BFH, Insel Kinderspital, USI, EOC, UZH, LUKS, OKS, HEdS-Genève, ZHAW, the Swiss Nutrition and Health foundation, the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), LBB, YouGov Schweiz and FSVO, creating a strong multi-disciplinary teamof researchers, medical doctors, dieticians, nurses, labs, and IT and data specialists.

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