For best results, start early: Healthy meal-prep kits boost children’s long-term ‘health’

Image Credit: Jonathan Chang via Flickr

CW: Discussion of BMI and health in relation to socio-economic status

Your childhood might shape your eating habits more than you know, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Bath suggests. With poor diet posing a major risk factor for the development of a multitude of disorders, such as diabetes type II, high blood pressure and heart disease, and accounts for 11.3 million deaths per year, this finding could have large implications for disease prevention.

The study, led by Prof. Michele Blèlot from the School of Economics at the University of Edinburgh, assessed how two different dietary interventions in 285 low-income families with young children – applied only for 12 weeks – could affect factors such as weight and body mass index (BMI), which are used to assess obesity, for up to three years. Ultimately, the aim of the study was to investigate if dietary habits could be changed in the long-term, which has previously been difficult to achieve despite interventions involving education about the benefits of a healthy diet.

The research focussed on families of low-income as there is a well-documented socio-economic gradient in chronic disease and obesity, with individuals of low socio-economic status (SES) being twice as likely to be affected by chronic diseases compared to high SES individuals. Furthermore, diets of individuals of low SES are often deficient in fresh fruit and vegetables, iron, vitamin D, while being high in saturated fats and sugars, which may contribute to obesity and chronic diseases.

[…] the aim of the study was to investigate if dietary habits could be changed in the long-term, which has previously been difficult to achieve despite interventions involving education about the benefits of a healthy diet

Prior to treatment, diet assessment showed that participants involved in the study consumed a high percentage of foods rich in saturated fats and sugar, which was corroborated by a high percentage of obesity in the sample. Families were then split into three treatment groups. The first treatment group (Meal treatment) was provided with free healthy meal preparation kits for five dinners a week. Recipes were chosen for simplicity, and while they were free of charge, the cost of the meals calibrated to the average weekly budget of low socioeconomic status families in the UK in order to help families to potentially adopt healthier diets after the 12-week intervention period. The second group (Snack treatment) was told to avoid snacking (adults) or engage in regular and healthy snacking (children) and eat at regular times. This intervention was based on evidence that children and adults often consume a large proportion of their calories in the form of snack foods, which are typical of poor nutritional value and dense in calories. Both snacking and meal irregularity are associated with poor diets and obesity; encouraging more conscious and regular eating behaviour is thought to potentially alleviate this issue. Finally, a control group was asked to carry on as usual.

In both intervention groups (Meal and Snack), children were significantly ‘healthier’ than in control groups as measured by a decrease in BMI. Assessing overall ‘health’ is a difficult undertaking and BMI is not necessarily an ideal measurement to assess health as it does not take into account the amount of muscle mass or bone density, amongst other factors. Yet, for feasibility, it is a quick and effective way to assess obesity and the researchers use it to detect a decrease in obesity in children – which can definitely be seen as an increase of ‘health’.

[…] individuals of low socio-economic status (SES) [are] twice as likely to be affected by chronic diseases compared to high SES individuals

This effect was sustained for up to three years in the Meal treatment, but subsided over time in the Snack group, suggesting that this intervention may be less effective. This is in line with the finding that children in both treatment groups expressed a decrease in preferences for high-calorie foods (such as processed foods, bread, or cheese) compared to the control group, although more so for the Meal treatment. Conversely – although perhaps agreeing with previous research showing that dietary interventions rarely result in long term behavioural changes in adults – there was no evidence for improvement of healthiness in adults. While children seemed to benefit from the intervention and showed a reduction of BMI, there was no decrease in BMI or alteration in any of the other measured factors in adults. Perhaps such a short intervention was not effective enough to make a significant different for adults, whose overall weight is higher than that of children.

The results highlight once more how critical childhood is in development and formation of habits, and suggest that dietary habits are more malleable to intervention during childhood (this is the time where I would like to thank my family for having the money and education to raise me on such a healthy and diverse diet). This finding may be useful to help shape future policy for disease prevention; it seems that starting at a young age and promoting healthy, diverse diets, is key to future ‘health’.

A question this research raises is whether it is too late for all of us adults now. This particular, short-term intervention did not appear to be effective, yet I think it is too early to conclude that no intervention will be able to alter dietary habits. A good starting point would be to alleviate the financial strain on families to allow access to food of higher nutritional value for everyone.

Editor’s note: As far as we know, the article in question studied only to able-bodied people. In no way is it suggesting that any disability can be ‘cured’ with a ‘healthy’ diet. Such rhetoric is damaging and should be avoided.

This post was written by Chiara Herzog and edited by Karolina Zieba.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *