A few minutes into grocery shopping, mall walking or rare visits to the park and my young one echoing the feelings of countless children across Pakistan laments, “I’m tired”. It’s not just the children, but many parents of this generation will find themselves unknowingly suffering from chronic fatigue, lack of energy and frequents bouts of illnesses. The question is, why?
Us 80s kids will vouch we were far more active and better fed than today’s generation. After hours of playing pithu garam and baraf pani which became increasingly competitive as we got older (scraped knees, tetanus shots and heat strokes couldn’t stop us), we would file in to our seats around the dining table eating home-cooked daals and sabzis, no matter how much we whined. What is the point of reminiscing about the good ol’ days? To get to the bottom of what changed from two generations ago to today. What changed to bring the kids from running around in the khet on their ancestral lands eating desi murghis and kuchee moolees, to communal playtime on the streets of Karachi and queuing up for masalay wala bhutta, to children today glued to flashing images across multiple screens with nuggets and fries?
Despite the fact that we are more aware of the benefits of fruits and vegetables, the harmful effects of vitamin deficiencies and the presence of unsafe ingredients in foods (such as high sugar content, trans fats, MSG and carcinogens found in chocolates, fried foods, burgers and cold drinks), we are still not monitoring what we are putting in our kids’ mouths.
[quote]One can say that previous generations were consuming cokes, toffees and burgers so why all the fuss now?[/quote]
One can say that the previous generations were consuming cokes and toffees and burgers so what is all the fuss about now? Well here’s the conundrum we are faced with, do we know how regular consumption of junk food and sweets and carbonated drinks impacted our health? Is it possible to trace back our problems with weight, dental issues and even ubiquitous fertility disorders to what we ate 15-20 years ago? Are the better health dynamics of our parents and grandparents attributable to the ‘khulla doodh’ and farm fresh eggs and vegetables? Bano Bajwa, a grandmother of 3 who grew up on an estate in Dhaka, moved to Pakistan in the 70s and then lived in the US for most of her adult life, credits the food they ate and how it was prepared for the good health her generation has enjoyed. “I remember how we used to run out into the fields and pick fresh saag that was then brought in, washed and cooked before our eyes. That’s what we ate, not this hormone injected stuff you pay so much for today.’
As La Rouchefold so aptly said, the only thing constant in life is change. Generations evolve, the world shifts, so do human needs and preferences. Hence changes in our lifestyles should be perceived as a natural progression over time, but when one takes a look at the negative effects they have brought about, we need to take a closer look. The human body will do what needs to be done to survive, so how is this generation of young Pakistanis adapting to survive the changes in lifestyles and the geo-political atmosphere around us?
Bano surmises on the lack of time and effort that people are able to put in today, ‘We ate everything, whatever was there. But now, even with my own grandkids being raised in the US and the relatives here, I see unhealthy junk food replacing regular meals. Back then, menus were carefully planned out, food was given a lot of thought and effort and kids had to eat what was on the table. Now everyone is in a hurry, lives are busier and there is a lot more eating out and the kids have gotten more demanding. There are too many choices and mostly unhealthy ones. But no matter how convenient outside food, too much of anything is bad and it cannot substitute for home-cooked meals’.
Bano is not wrong in her assumption of worsened eating habits as increased incidences of health issues such as chronic constipation, iron deficiency, overall lethargy and weaker immune systems reported by private paediatricians can be attributed possibly to poor eating habits. Dr Mumtaz sees a general trend amongst the young patients that walk through her doors, ‘Majority of them are below the average weight for their age, particularly the little ones and there’s a high incidence of allergies and gastric issues and almost all of them will at some point be prescribed vitamin D and iron supplements. Even with the older children you see lethargy and overall unwell-ness, so there must be something wrong in what we are eating and doing that is contributing to this’.
What can we do about all this? Well according to gynaecologist Dr Umama, what we do today is literally shaping our children’s futures. ‘ the lack of nutrition in children’s’ everyday diets today is going to seriously impact their health as they grow; blood pressure, cholesterol, pregnancy complications, gynaecological disorders; there are already higher rates of these amongst young men and women in cities across Pakistan, they are just going to get worse. Unfortunately we don’t have enough long-term studies to monitor lifestyles and food intake and how it impacts our health, but we need to realise there is a problem’.
So what can we do to change what our kids eat? According to a paper by the University of Michigan, allowing kids to sip juices and chewing sweets all day leads to cavities and an unhealthy build-up of sugar in the body; fresh fruits are mentioned as a better alternative. They also mention the benefits of switching to skimmed milk rather than full fat which the majority of children in Pakistan drink. Snacking suggestions, according to this study, range from cut up vegetables and fruits to bread-sticks and yogurt or hummus dips, fruit yogurts, cereal bars and digestive biscuits with cream cheese as opposed to the store bought cupcakes, crisps and biscuits found in our lunch boxes. It also helps to educate parents about how to read labels which is an extremely uncommon practice in Pakistan. We would certainly be better shoppers and smarter parents if we would check to see the levels of sugar, saturated and trans-fats and calories on the sides of boxes as good indicators of what to avoid. At the same time we could make sure we fill our shopping carts each month with items containing high levels of protein such as chicken, seafood and vitamins as well as fibre and protein rich foods such as varieties of nuts, vegetables and cereals. The study also clearly indicated that calcium apart from milk and dairy products can be found in dark-green leafy vegetables which need to be part of our meals.
‘It’s a mission to feed anything healthy to my son, he is so fussy he does not like anything oily, anything spicy or any kind of meat that he can see’, confesses Tasneem a working mum who struggles to feed her 5 year old every day. She is part of the rule not the exception, it seems, as the challenge for countless parents today is how to feature meats, seafood, legumes, vegetables and fruits in their meals, having a hard time ensuring that the kids are not receiving their entire nutrition from Disney shaped jellies and malt and energy drinks.
The Michigan study also highlighted the importance of eating as a family and of the consistent meal times and healthy eating habits on the part of adults which kids can then emulate – practices which were once quite common to our part of the world.
But with increasingly busy lifestyles and nuclear families and the fast food syndrome we have adopted from the West we are going the wrong way on Health Street. Parents it seems do not have the time or inclination to monitor what and how much their kids are eating hence a growing number of children struggle with cavities and unhealthy weight distribution due to careless eating habits in Pakistan. It doesn’t help that food courts abound and provide parents with an easy fix, but do we stop and think about the contents and preparation methods of the fries and chicken and pizza slices our kids bite into?
There’s also the matter of unethical television advertising that captures the attention of youngsters who easily access the cupcakes, candies, lollies and chewing gums luring them in. As Sabina, a stay-at-home mum of two who grew up in England points out, ‘It’s ridiculous that there is no policy against ads, particularly on kids’ channels, with their animations and catchy tunes selling unhealthy products. It’s irresponsible on the part of the authorities and the parents who should know that this does not happen abroad. Kids don’t know any better and want the stuff they see, but we should know this isn’t right.’
There is no doubt that the conversation about the benefits of organic food, healthy eating and awareness about harmful ingredients, is getting louder, all around the world. Last week the ‘New parent old parent column’ in The New York Times struggled to answer the same question, ‘How do we teach our kids to eat better’, suggesting if we don’t buy it they won’t eat it, and improved family routines as possible ways to deal with the pressing issue. As we ponder over this with respect to Pakistan, we can aim to educate ourselves and initiate change. A Saturday farmers market organised by Kuch Khaas in Islamabad and the Khaalis Food Market in Lahore with arrays of fresh fruits, farm products, home-made comfitures; as well as the growing availability of bran, multi-grain and organic baked goods available in bakeries and health conscious foodie places across the big cities indicates that when people want to find healthier alternatives, even in Pakistan, they will.
Taking a step back and re-assessing the contents of our fridge and pantry could help us realise how small changes we make can have a big impact on our children’s lives. Knowing what we should eat and not eat is half the battle, the real test is making sure we do it.