It may be hard to believe that the health decisions you make for a five-year-old today will still count when he or she is 50.
Many studies now show that adult afflictions like heart disease and high blood pressure clearly have their origins in early childhood. In some cases, childhood presents the only window of opportunity to markedly influence certain aspects of adult health. Growth and cell division in many parts of the body occur only in childhood, which is why the foods and nutrients children consume in their early years can influence lifelong health – a concept known as “metabolic programming.”
Height, for example, is mostly determined during the first five years of life, influenced by both genetics and nutrition. Bone and tooth strength – and subsequently a woman’s risk for osteoporosis – is almost entirely decided by the end of adolescence, which is why calcium intake in kids and teens, and exercise in young girls, is so important. And many experts believe that if obesity occurs in childhood, when the number and size of fat cells is largely determined, a child is saddled with far more fat cells for life than she would have developed had she stayed slim into young adulthood.
Eating behavior and food preferences, perhaps the biggest determinants of long-term health, are primarily decided in childhood and adolescence. Studies show that eating habits and obesity can affect risk for premature cancer, diabetes, liver and heart disease, and many other health problems. And while adults certainly have the power to change their eating patterns, much of how we eat and what we like to eat is powerfully programmed by our experiences in childhood, making us exceedingly resistant to change as adults.
Many parents, of course, already know that healthy eating habits, exercise and weight management are the keys to long-term health. The problem is that it is hard work to change to healthy habits. Start today, by having dinner together at your family table and go out for a walk as a family.