Children's Health: Are Simple Solutions Best?

Sep 10, 2009

U.S. kids are pretty fortunate. Children in the United States have relatively good access to nutritious foods. (Whether all children and their parents can afford healthy foods, live in areas where healthy foods are readily available, and make good nutrition choices are other issues that continue to be explored.) Compared with children in countries where clean water is hard to come by, however, U.S. children are in a better position than many.

Of course, there is always the argument that children can be healthier. In early August, published a story claiming that U.S. children are deficient in vitamin D. According to the story, researchers stated that 70% of U.S. children have low levels of vitamin D, putting them at higher risk for bone and heart disease.

"We expected the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency would be high, but the magnitude of the problem nationwide was shocking," the story quoted Juhi Kumar of Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center as saying.

Poor eating choices could be to blame, as the researchers pointed out. Children may not be consuming the healthy foods that could provide this vitamin. Or, as our society in general has come to embrace more-sedentary lifestyles, children might not be spending as much time outdoors.

Both reasons probably apply. In their study, the researchers found that low vitamin D levels were especially prevalent among African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, the obese, those who drank milk less than once a week—and those who spent more than four hours a day watching television, playing video games, or using computers.

Besides giving children foods and supplements rich in vitamin D, the study's researchers had a simpler suggestion for how parents can get their children more vitamin D.

"It would be good for them to turn off the TV and send their kids outside," said the study's leader, Michal L. Melamed of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. "Just 15 to 20 minutes a day should be enough," he added.

As Melamed points out, sometimes there are more old-fashioned ways for children to get healthier. So as the grown-ups, do we give children more supplements to make up for the nutrients they may not be getting? The jury is still out on whether or not children should be given supplements, as senior associate editor Shazia Haq points out in this issue's cover story on children's health. However, starting children on healthy habits early in life can only help.

Childhood conditions such as obesity, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, often follow children into adulthood. And these childhood conditions can often grow into more serious ones, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. For these reasons, while not everyone agrees that supplements are the way to go, most would agree that training children early about good health is a good place to start.

And, of course, habits that are healthy for children are also good for adults. The vitamin D study pointed out that many adults are also deficient in vitamin D and should perhaps get outdoors more. So as we're helping our children get healthier, perhaps we can lead by example.

Jennifer Kwok