By Gatonye Gathura
Children who consume soft drinks regularly are not getting enough sleep, report child lifestyle experts.
They also report that children left to play outside are likely to pick healthier foods compared to their indoor confined counterparts.
In studies covering 12 countries, including Kenya, the experts may have turned upside down common thinking among parents and teachers that left on their own most children are likely to pick junk foods.
In fact the studies, published this week say indoor confined children are eating more junk foods than those allowed to play outside.
“This is crazy,” says Helen Mwarinia, a teacher and head of nutrition at a private primary school in Kangemi.
“We have been working hard to make sure children do not come into contact with any food items between school and home.”
The school like most others has directed parents not to give children pocket monies and only pack a healthy lunch or snack which must include a fruit, vegetables, whole grains, plain drinking water or milk and no sweetened drinks.
But Helen agrees that left on their own parents are likely to pack or types of junk foods for their children. Such include fast foods, hamburgers, soft drinks, sweets and fried items.
“These foods are widely available at home and accessible to stay-in children. Combined with long on-couch, long behind screen and shorter sleep times restricted children face serious health risks,” says Prof Vincent Onywera of Kenyatta University and a co-author in the two studies.
The studies by the International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment (ISCOLE) involved about 7,000 children from Kenya, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, India, Portugal, South Africa, the UK and the US.
Since 2010, Prof Onywera working with ISCOLE and other agencies has published three scorecards on childhood obesity in Kenya.
The three scorecards with the first published in 2011 have generally agreed that child obesity though not yet a crisis in Kenya is a matter of growing concern.
“But there are hotspots of concern which include urban areas and among well to do households,” says Prof Onywera.
In one of their previous studies, among 500 school children in Nairobi aged 9-11 obesity and overweight was as high as 21 per cent.
“But this is the first time we have looked into the link between unhealthy drinks and food on one hand and sleep and children’s outdoor play on the other,” says Prof Onywera.
The team found the 9-11 year-olds scholars who took a soft drink at least once a day were likely to sleep for shorter periods compared with those who never consumed such drinks or did so only once in a week
Children reporting less use of soft drinks the report says were likely to sleep the recommended 9–11 hours per night.
“We also observed that children who regularly consumed soft drinks were also likely to delay sleep times or go to bed later than their counterparts who never or were low on such drinks.”
On average the team found the children to sleep for 8.8 hours per night and only 58 per cent were meeting the World health Organisation’s recommended 9-11 hours of sleep time per night.
From the 12 countries, Kenya children go to sleep the earliest at about 21:41 hours or a few minutes to 10:00 pm in the night with the latest to bed being Portuguese children almost two hours later.
The research found almost 12 per cent of all the children to regularly consume cola or soft drinks with the highest levels being in South Africa and the least in Finland.
The researchers blame parents for the growing habit of child indoor confinement and restricting crucial outdoor play.
Due to this, the study says few children are achieving the recommended 60-minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity required each day for good health.
Parents, the research says are confining their children indoors due to security fears and a demand to work on improving academic grades.
“But what this study tells us is that the shift from outdoor to confinement may be hurting the children’s health,” says Prof Onywera.
The researchers found children spending more time indoors were eating more and of the wrong foods and burning less energy
The indoor children are also exposed to more time on the couch and behind the various screens.
Outdoor children on the other had reported consuming less of sweets, sugary drinks, hamburgers, crisps or chips compared to confined children.
The buying of and stocking the home with junk food, the study suggests is more of a parents than children problem.
“Parents are the major buyers of the so called unhealthy foods, peaking on weekends and holidays which largely informs out stocking decisions,” says Jasper, a stockist with Tumaini supermarkets in Nairobi.
But whatever the risks associated with outdoors children play including insecurity and accidents the researchers say this should never deny children their childhood.
“The health benefit far much outweighs the risks,” says Prof Onywera.
Two studies involving 7000 school children aged 9-11 from 12 countries in all continents
Involved 500 children from Nairobi
Regular consumption of soft drinks reduces sleep time
Outdoor playing children likely to pick healthy foods
Confined children more exposed to unhealthy foods, screen time and inactivity
Parents than children more likely to purchase and stock unhealthy foods
Among 12 countries Kenya children go to bed earliest
Health benefits of outdoor play outweighs any risks