People die in different ways in Pakistan. Malnutrition, notably among children under five, is one of the biggest killers in the country. According to Unicef, a shocking 78.8 children for every 1,000 live births are dead by the time they reach the age of five. As we have often noted, nearly 50 percent are stunted or wasted. But we have done nothing about this.
However, there is also another paradoxical factor that is causing deaths. Fast food and processed food, according to several studies, is now more common than ever before. A survey conducted by the European Journal of Economics, Finance and Administrative Science (2012) revealed that nearly 80 percent of about a hundred people chosen from different economic backgrounds in Lahore and Faisalabad preferred junk food over regular home-cooked, local items. This indicated a sharp change since the 1970s when burgers with a patty inserted between two pieces of bread were something of a mystery to many local diners.
Significantly, the trend has resulted in growing obesity, notably among children. It isn’t just the wealthy who suffer. The less wealthy may choose less well-established brands of burgers or fries. But they still consume them and offer them to their children. Many of these parents don’t realise that they are effectively poisoning their offspring.
This is especially true in a country where every sixth person suffers from diabetes and heart disease has become rampant. This is combined with a high intake of sugar – a substance that food experts such as Jamie Oliver have challenged the use of in many popular items, including ketchup. Oliver, who is best known for his attempts to improve the quality and health content of school dinners in the UK and US, believes sugar kills and has badly affected the health of millions of children around the world.
An example of how food imported from other countries or ideas about food borrowed from the West can affect health can be witnessed in Samoa, a small, idyllic island in the Pacific Ocean that once boasted a lifestyle close to something we would equate with a unique closeness to nature. Today, food imports, notably cuts of lamb made up almost entirely of animal fat from New Zealand are one of the most commonly consumed products on the island. The result is a booming rate of diabetes and other diseases. Traditional items based on vegetables are no longer considered suitable for family dinners in a culture where food is central to family life.
We should question if we are approaching a similar situation. While the impressively active Punjab Food Authority has banned scores of items containing monosodium glutamate, preservatives, colouring and artificial flavour-enhancers that are harmful to the health of children, these products continue to be sold almost everywhere. Parents simply don’t realise the damage these items can cause and there has been no attempt to raise awareness among children.
Many people, even those privileged enough to be served varied healthy meals, carefully pick vegetables out of their food before taking a single bite. There is an argument that children will simply not eat healthy items such as spinach, peas or broccoli. But this can easily be challenged.
In France, even the smallest state schools with low budgets hire trained chefs who prepare multiple course meals, even for infants. The teaching staff helps children sit around a table and eat food served on proper tableware, with cutlery suited to their size. The children are expected to complete each course, eating slowly and also engaging in social talk while they do so. Food, the French believe, is central to the wellbeing of these children in the future. If a child refuses to eat a particular food item, it is simply taken away and the next course is served.
The effort that France has puts into its school dinners reflects eating practices around the country and has resulted in one of the lowest rates of heart disease or obesity in Europe – though this may change as fast food makes its way into the nation.
In our country, the problem of obesity is combined with another concern: lack of fitness or good physical health. A telling advertisement, originally from India, shows sad young hockey players, swimmers, tennis players and others ‘retiring’ at the early age of 16. The lyrics in the ad suggest that their lives must now revolve around academics. This, of course, is very true for our country too. Indeed, academic pressures begin well before the age of 17. Parents argue that sports have little purpose. In addition, limited access to safe, open spaces adds to the problem in this age of screens.
More developed countries have discovered that this approach is a disaster. Japan, which has one of the highest academic success rates among teenagers in the world, now plans to introduce a much wider approach to education and greater physical fitness at its schools. The prestigious American Academy of Pediatricians notes that all children between the ages of eight and 18 require at least one hour of physical activity a day to help them reach their full potential. In fact, this helps them focus better on academics and perform at improved levels in classroom activities and examinations. We have yet to learn these lessons. Yet, there are so many programmes that we could adopt.
The remarkably simple Daily Mile programme initiated nearly a decade ago by a headmistress at a school in Scotland simply requires children from every classroom to step out into the outdoors and run, jog or even walk at whatever pace they can manage for 15 minutes. In the case of most healthy children, this would cover a mile. But there is no competitive element to the programme and no pressure on children. Teachers are free to take the children outdoors whenever free time is available.
The ranked sessions continue around the year and parents report quite dramatic improvements in the behaviour of children who attend schools where the programme has been introduced. From Scotland, it has now expanded into the rest of the UK and many parts of Europe, and is making its way to New Zealand, Australia and the US.
The beauty of the project, especially in a time when space is limited and free hours short, is that it requires no specialised training, no clean-up, no equipment and very little effort on the part of teaching staff. And yet, it brings enormous benefit for children.
Researchers have noted that advertising junk food to children is not unexpectedly a primary factor in their growing demand for it. We need to take steps to deal with the problem at various levels. Awareness is key, as is the need to bring back local items onto our children’s plates, including the unbeatably healthy corn-on-the-cob, baked sweet potatoes, and other items that are sold as street food. They have been replaced by other items come in packets and are highly processed.
The damage is enormous and will inevitably have a huge impact on the future of our country and the health of its people in the years to come. This is not a matter that should be overlooked. Government policies need to be developed and implemented now so that bodies like the PFA can be supported and new initiatives in this sphere encouraged.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.