Researchers from three different faculties collaborated on the study: Physical Education and Recreation, School of Public Health and Medicine and Dentistry. When they tabulated the results of the surveys, they found that 54.5 percent of children from poorer neighborhoods drank at least one soda per week. That was significantly more than the 40.8 percent of children from wealthier neighborhoods.
One of the study’s authors, Kate Storey, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the School of Public Health, put that in context:
When you’re looking at that age group, and such a large percentage of very young kids in the study are consuming a large amount of soda, it’s quite concerning.
If you’re drinking a lot of soda and fruit juice, that can displace consumption of water and milk, which are important not just for quenching thirst, but for developing healthy bones and teeth, and health and wellness in general.
One soda a week may not sound like a lot, but the problem is compounded by what happens when preschoolers spend more than two hours per day watching TV or playing video games. More “screen time” is linked with more sweetened beverages.
Next: Plenty of Milk and Meat, Not Much Produce or Grain
The researchers also wanted to find out if the 1,800 pre-schoolers were following Canada’s Food Guide. They discovered 91 percent of them ate the recommended servings of dairy, and 94 percent ate enough meat or alternatives. That did not hold true for fruits and vegetables (30 percent) or grain products (23.5 percent).
What substituted for the recommended foods in low- and medium-income neighborhoods were low-nutrient, high-calorie foods such as potato chips, fries, candies and chocolate.
They pointed out that access to stores and transportation are not always available in what have come to be known as “food deserts.” Many families end up relying on the nutritionally poor choices they can pick up at neighborhood convenience stories.
Co-author John C. Spence, associate dean of research in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, said:
Dietary behaviour and intake patterns are influenced heavily by what happens in the first few years with children, and they maintain those patterns throughout childhood and into adolescence. In addition to basic health education, this study identifies a need in how we’re dealing with poverty and recognizing there’s more to poverty than simply the number of dollars people have. Many families live in places that might not be very healthy for them and, as a result, they make unhealthy food choices.
Next: Good News Worth Supporting
The bright side of their study is that a healthy environment can counteract the effects of poverty. For example, play schools and kindergartens offering plenty of activity and a good food environment can teach children to make healthier choices.
Involving children in meal preparation can influence their habits, preferences and skills. So can a healthy built environment that includes public parks, playgrounds, walking paths, libraries, recreation centers and community gardens.
In an era of growing inequality, such amenities are often viewed as unnecessary luxuries. Instead, they are preventive medicine. Making them available to children of all socioeconomic backgrounds leads to a healthier citizenry and savings in health care, policing, education and social services.
As Kate Storey said of the study’s findings: “You can start making a difference in different places. It calls for action in multiple settings, schools and communities, for example. That light-bulb moment can happen in a variety of places.”
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