Can this diet save Australian kids from obesity? The science says so

The key to preventing obesity is starting babies early on a range of vegetables and fatty fish.

The key to preventing obesity is starting babies early on a range of vegetables and fatty fish. Photo: Getty

One in four Australian children and adolescents are overweight or suffering from obesity. As each generation ages, it gets fatter.

When Australians reach adulthood, about one-third of them are overweight or obese. What are we doing about it?

As the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare advises:

“Obesity prevention policies in Australia and worldwide include specific strategies for targeting overweight and obesity in children and adolescents, such as limiting the marketing and availability of unhealthy food and drinks.”

Let’s get real.

Too little, too late

Common sense and new research suggests the key is to get in very early.

A fascinating study shows just how early we need to intervene in the eating habits of our kids.

Swedish researchers adapted the Nordic diet – with lower protein and cereals – for a group of babies aged from four to six months. (Babies should be exposed to solid foods no earlier than four months.)

The researchers fed “taster portions” of the adapted Nordic diet to a group of babies, while a control group was fed a “conventional diet” – which presumably meant less variety and more protein.

The Nordic diet is much like the Mediterranean diet, with a few differences. Photo: Getty

Babies on the Nordic-style diet – as well as consuming breast or formula milk – were eating “almost double the number of vegetables” (46 per cent more) than those in the control group fed a conventional diet by 18 months of age.

More about the research

Researchers from the University of Umeå, Sweden, Stockholm County Council Centre for Epidemiology, and the University of California recruited 250 babies for the trial, with 82 per cent completing the experiment.

They were assigned into two groups and followed from the age of four to six months until they were 18 months.

Those on the new Nordic diet were supplied with Nordic home-made baby food recipes, protein-reduced baby food products, and offered parental support via social media.

Babies on the control group were fed the conventional diet currently recommended by the Swedish Food Agency.

The findings

According to a statement from the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN):

  • Fruit consumption in the conventional-diet control group remained consistent, these babies reduced their vegetable intake by 36 per cent between 12-18 months.
  • Babies on the Nordic diet had an average protein intake 17-29 per cent lower than those on the conventional diet at 12-18 months of age.
  • This was still within recommended protein intake levels and the overall calorie count between the two groups was the same.
  • The protein reduction in the Nordic diet group was replaced by more carbohydrates from vegetables, not more cereals, together with some extra fat from rapeseed oil.

What the researchers said

Lead researcher Dr Ulrica Johansson, a paediatrician and registered dietitian at the University of Umeå, Sweden, said there did not appear to be any negative effects from having a lower protein intake.

Regarding the experimental diet, she said:

“A Nordic diet with reduced protein introduced to infants naive to this model of eating, increased the intake of fruit, berries, vegetables, and roots, establishing a preferable eating pattern lasting over a 12-month period.

“There were no negative effects on breastfeeding duration, iron status or growth.”

What is a Nordic diet?

The Nordic diet has a higher intake of regionally and seasonally produced fruit, berries, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, tubers (potatoes, swedes, turnips), and legumes, as well as whole grains, vegetable fats and oils, fish and eggs, and a lower intake of sweets, desserts, and dairy, meat, and meat products.

A Nordic diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet. But where the Mediterranean diet uses extra virgin olive oil, the Nordic diet uses rapeseed (also known as canola) oil.

Rapeseed is easier to grow in colder climates.

They’re both healthy oils, with some differences. See here.

Why extra oil?

The babies on the Nordic-style diet were fed extra fat in the form of rapeseed oil. Most of the discussion online about supplemental oil for babies is confined to the use of extra virgin olive oil.

Small doses of olive oil might be good for a baby’s fast-growing brain. It would also serve as an immunity boost, being rich in polyphenol antioxidant compounds.

But I could only find the issue discussed at parenting sites and olive oil merchants. See here.  It would be good to see some research – and I’ll endeavour to follow this up.

The main finding

The main finding, however, is a simple one. We’re always banging on about the need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and cut back on carbs.

The approach adopted in this study opens a pathway for sustained healthy eating in early life.

Let’s see if this success can be sustained in older children.

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