Pediatricians care for 15% of the Spanish population, which corresponds to the more than seven million children under 15 years of age who currently reside in our country. And they don’t just do it when they get sick. They also accompany, advise, assess, monitor… In short, they take care of the health and well-being of children from birth to adolescence, so their work in promoting healthy habits in this age group “is one of the keys to preventing the ‘pandemics’ that already affect new generations, among which obesity, sleep disorders, sedentary lifestyle or the abusive use of electronic devices stand out,” summarized in the Spanish Association of Pediatrics ( AEP). These are some of the recommendations, “always based on scientific evidence”, prepared by the AEP Health Promotion Committee to “improve the quality of life of the little ones in the short, medium and long term.”
Pediatricians insist that obesity is “the most common chronic disease in childhood and adolescence, since one in three Spanish children is overweight.” Hence the importance of maintaining a healthy diet from a very young age. «The general recommendation is that half of the lunch or dinner plate be vegetables, while the majority of the snack or lunch is always fruit. And fruit is not juice,” warns Dr. Julio Álvarez Pitti, coordinator of the Health Promotion committee. The pediatrician advises completing the menus with cereals, “always whole grains”, and remembers that potatoes cannot be considered a vegetable from a nutritional point of view but rather they are carbohydrates.
Regarding protein intake, Dr. Álvarez considers that three meat dishes a week are more than enough, to which another three of fish and at least as many legumes should be added. Seeds and nuts are also another good source of this nutrient. The drink? “Always, always water.”
The specialist would eliminate sweets from all children’s menus, but also all types of sausages “because they are not healthy.” Now, he is aware that “we live in the reality we live in and it is not always easy to do the right thing because supermarkets are full of these types of products. It’s not about being perfect, but we have to be aware that our duty as parents is to feed children in the best way possible. And we have to set an example. There’s no point in requiring them to eat healthy if the adults around them don’t. For a child to learn and adapt to a new flavor or texture, he or she must repeat that intake at least ten or fifteen times,” he reveals.
In addition to diet, another of the causes behind the increase in childhood obesity is sedentary lifestyle, “to which the inappropriate use of digital devices also contributes,” they argue in the AEP. In fact, only four out of ten Spanish children and adolescents comply with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of not spending more than two hours a day in front of a screen.
Exercise is essential not only for children’s physical development but also for their intellectual development. «Babies can’t stay in a hammock all day without moving. And as soon as they start to walk, it is best to leave the stroller aside and let them walk. From the age of five they should do at least one hour of exercise of a certain intensity a day. In your case, playing in the street (park, jumping, hide-and-seek, ball…) and walking quickly is usually enough. Pediatricians also now advise that children do strength exercises, a type of activity that was not always viewed favorably. “It is not about lifting heavy dumbbells, but it is very important that they tone the body,” explains Dr. Álvarez.
Another concern for families is problems related to sleep or, rather, the lack of it. A headache that does not attract the attention of pediatricians since two out of every ten children seen in consultation have problems sleeping. “Sleep plays a fundamental role in the healthy development of minors and the fact of not resting well or not getting enough rest leads to a decrease in attention and academic performance, among other disorders,” warns Dr. Gonzalo Pin, coordinator of the AEP Dream Group.
And one of the reasons why minors, especially adolescents, sleep little is the misuse of screens. «We should not demonize them because they have important benefits such as improved communication, access to quality information, entertainment, learning… but it is important to learn to use them well. Mobile phones and tablets in baby strollers, outside. Devices in the bedrooms of adolescents –and their parents–, neither,” the pediatricians agree.