“Nutrition affects a child’s brain development and brain plasticity”

Samuel John, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Samuel John, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

How does diet affect the development of a child? Martina Frank explains why it is important to raise children’s awareness of healthy food, and why there is need for action regarding children’s eating habits.

Zoe Bozzolan-Kenworthy:Eat. Play. Love. Everything a baby needs for healthy brain development.” In what way do you identify with this message by UNICEF to world leaders meeting at the G20 summit in 2018?

Martina Frank: I certainly agree that all three aspects are essential for the healthy development of a child. Children need care, and they need active play. Of course, proper nutrition is essential too, ideally starting even before conception and then continuing during pregnancy and throughout the entire life cycle. Studies have shown that nutrition affects not only the unborn baby, but also a child’s brain development and brain plasticity, especially during the period from birth to age 6.

ZB: Why is it so important to raise awareness about nutrition?

MF: Globally, we have a serious problem of what’s called the double burden of malnutrition: the coexistence of undernutrition and overweight in children and adults. This can be found within one individual, since a person can be overweight and at the same time malnourished. It can be present within a community, where individuals from different socioeconomic circumstances are living side by side, some of them undernourished while others are overweight. Or this double burden can occur within countries.

According to WHO data from 2016, nearly one-fifth of the world’s children and youth are overweight or obese. We are seeing a steady increase, in low- and middle-income countries more than in high-income countries. However, many high-income countries also have a high percentage of overweight children. In Switzerland, for example, 41% of the adult population and one in six schoolchildren are overweight or obese. We need to start raising awareness of this issue when children are young so that they will learn to eat healthy very early on, because habits are set in childhood.

ZB: A child’s first years are crucial for development. Why does your project, LimeTree Camp, focus on older children?

MF: Nutrition is very important during pregnancy and the first years of life, but as we grow older, our health is increasingly affected by environmental aspects and behavioral choices as well. Our nutrition and health project in Switzerland, known as LimeTree Camp, focuses on children between the ages of 9 and 12 because they are becoming more independent and able to grasp basic concepts relating to nutrition and health in general.

They are capable of understanding the effects of food on the body and the world, and they can learn how to prepare healthy, delicious and climate-friendly meals and make smart choices about nutritious foods. Studies have shown that when children are involved in cooking activities, they are more likely to eat healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits.

ZB: You invite children to travel the world of food and explore where different foods come from. How are cultural aspects relevant to making healthy food choices?

MF: Unfortunately, our Western diet is no longer very nutritious. We eat a lot of processed foods, which often contain large amounts of saturated fats and refined sugars. That’s why our project decided to look at traditional diets from other regions of the world, such as India, where nutritious vegetarian meals and the use of high-protein plants, such as lentils, are common. Traditional African food, for example, uses various types of grains and the natural sugars found in fruits like dates. Exploring the world of unprocessed foods and different meal traditions, we are able to focus on healthy and nutritious foods.

“We need to start raising awareness of this issue when children are young so that they will learn to eat healthy very early on, because habits are set in childhood.”

Another issue is sustainability. We want children to know where our food comes from. Avocados, for instance, don’t grow in Switzerland; they are imported from Spain or Latin America. So what does buying an avocado in a Swiss supermarket mean for CO2 emissions, the environment and climate change? When children know the difference between regional and seasonal products and imported goods, they are able to make conscious and sustainable food choices.

ZB: Nutrition and healthy foods have become increasingly important in schools. In an effort to raise awareness among schoolchildren in the UK, Jamie Oliver launched a “food revolution”, encouraging the UK Government to include food education in the national curriculum. When it comes to offering school lunches for children in public schools, it appears that Switzerland lags behind other countries.

MF: Nutrition is part of Switzerland’s new school curriculum Lehrplan 21, an initiative designed to modernize and harmonize the education system in the country’s German-speaking cantons. Nutrition education is included as part of the “identity, body and health” curriculum, which is currently being rolled out across schools in Switzerland. It is an ambitious curriculum, aimed at promoting nutritional and other competencies as well as health literacy. It is not mandatory, however; teachers are able to choose from a variety of topics under the heading of “nature, humans and society.”

Despite our belief that it is important to work with children early on so that even in primary school, they have a better understanding of the importance of nutritious and sustainable foods, the subject of nutrition and health is not mandatory until secondary school.

As for school lunches, the situation varies in Switzerland. Some schools provide catered food, and some caterers are excellent and careful to abide by rigorous nutrition and sustainability guidelines, but there is great variation. Many children in Switzerland still go home for lunch, because all-day schools have not yet been widely introduced. This differs from the UK and the United States, which have all-day schools that make it possible to work with the school system to have an impact on children’s nutrition, through both classroom instruction and school catering.

Scientific data about the relationship between nutrition and health and the existing challenge to decrease the proportion of overweight children in Switzerland highlight the need to increase awareness of the tremendous benefits of healthy nutrition. Providing children with healthy and sustainable food choices at school and at home is essential to promoting health and preventing disease.

LimeTree Camp emphasizes nutritional, sustainable food choices in an effort to promote children’s health and nutrition literacy and raise their awareness of the link between food choices and environmental sustainability. Its vision is to create a world in which children understand these important relationships and families take the time to cook real foods, using fresh and nutritious ingredients. In 2019, LimeTree Camps will be held in Thalwil and Zurich, Switzerland.

In the course of her extensive public health work with women and children in many countries, LimeTree Camp founder Martina Frank witnessed the effects of poor nutrition on children and their families. Her passion for health as a human right and her love for food from different cultures inspired her to launch the LimeTree Camp program. Martina holds degrees in public health from Columbia University and social anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and has a CAS in nutrition and disease prevention from the ETH Zurich.

Weekly newsletter