Kathmandu’s kids are eating more junk food than ever and it’s stunting their growthBabies are getting a quarter of their calories from unhealthy food, new report says.
More than a quarter of what Kathmandu Valley’s babies eat is junk food, according to a recently published study.
While over-consumption of junk foods is often associated with obesity, the study found links to malnutrition and stunting instead.
Researchers from Helen Keller International studied on families of 745 children throughout the Valley, testing the nutritional effects of snack consumption. Published in the Journal of Nutrition last week, it found a host of factors strongly associated with stunting and malnutrition.
The study found junk foods contributed to nearly half of some youngsters’ diets, and those with higher intake of unhealthy snacks were less nourished than those with lower intakes, and more likely to be shorter.
Dr Atul Upadhyay, one of the study’s co-authors, told the Post that while fatty, sugary or salty foods were internationally associated with obesity, the rates were low among those studied.
“Most of the studies done abroad have been focused on obesity, but this is one of the very few findings, globally, that says these foods lead to under-nutrition. It’s quite unique, in that sense,” Upadhyay said. Instead, deficiencies in macro and micro nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, zinc and vitamins C and A, were cause for alarm. Protein, considered one of the essential “building blocks” for healthy growth, was of particular concern because it was “considerably lower in high-snackers”, he said.
Another one of the findings show, stunting among children, was just as serious as malnutrition because it does not just mean stunted growth. It also had irreversible cognitive ramifications, if not addressed. Upadhyay said while stunting rates had improved country-wide, dropping from 56 to 36 percent between 1996 and 2016. “I would say that we have to be more concerned, and this has to be one of the main priorities of the government as well as other relevant stakeholders,” he said.
Department of Health Services family welfare nutrition section chief Kedar Parajuli says the Ministry of Health and Populations had already started putting things in place, in reaction to the report’s results.
Created in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, the report will take a multi-faceted approach to create interventions to alleviate the burden of junk foods, Parajuli told the Post.
“We need to have interventions, not only in the school system, because it all starts at home. Our interventions should be focused at home too,” Parajuli said, “When babies are born, within one year, the length of the baby should increase by 25 percent, and the next year by 12 percent, then gradually it should increase over five years. This is the most important time.”
Parajuli claimed the government had already recognised the negative effects of such foods and beverages. “Red Bull—the government has already banned the import of it into Nepal. We are thinking about these things... but we have to start doing more,” Parajuli said.
That means there needs to be more research done, both by government agencies and in conjunction with NGOs.
“We have to promote our domestic foods, and we are trying to discourage the consumption of these junk foods. This is a good start, to a good initiative.”
Nisha Sharma, also co-author of the report, says 80 percent of development takes place within the first two years of life. If stunting is not addressed, then cognitive abilities suffer and are irreversible, she said.
But mothers and caregivers were aware of the nutritional implications of these foods. “Some of the mothers use the word ‘junk food’ for these kinds of things,” says Sharma, “There are more women coming into the workforce, and even lower socio-economic women find it more convenient to provide milk and biscuits.”
But families, caregivers and mothers feeding their children these foods was not because of a lack of understanding, rather the convenience and cost of foods like instant noodles, sugary drinks, biscuits and potato chips. These foods are replacing traditional snacks and meals, such as rice and dal based jaulo or multigrain lito.
Sharma, who has a 15-month-old son, says children preferred such foods as well.
“I don’t have to teach him to eat these foods—he is just attracted to them. Children are easily attracted to these foods,” she said.
Part of the problem, however, is the availability and the price of healthier alternatives, according to Upadhyay. And while some of the snacks were fortified, such as biscuits or noodles, the added sugar or salt negated any benefits—the study also called for further investigation of these foods and their roles in the diet.
“If we don’t take action now, it will be too late,” said Sharma, “The government must consider both the food makers and the food consumers.”
So, in the meantime, Sharma recommends mothers and caregivers be aware of what their children are consuming and look at ways of being “creative and playful” to properly nourish them, with whole foods.
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