[OPINION] The ‘hidden curriculum’ for children in SA

Realising children’s potential starts at home. This has always been my firm belief and it was further reinforced at the Second Yoghurt Summit held in early September in Johannesburg, at which I was one of the speakers on an international panel.

While schools, uniforms and books are essential for a child’s formal education, there is an entire hidden curriculum that is ‘caught not taught’. It’s passed on from parents to their children via osmosis, in an informal, everyday way, and it consists of family values, ground rules, habits and life skills that are essential in helping to lay strong foundations for the rest of a child’s life. These are not things taught at school, they are learnt at home in the family context, or not.

The focus of the Second Yoghurt Summit was to look at the importance of good nutrition and eating habits in young children to save them from developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases which have strong links to nutrition and being overweight in childhood. The shocking fact that South African children are now twice as overweight as their international counterparts are, was a matter of serious concern amongst the speaker panel and the audience of healthcare practitioners and policymakers.

In South Africa, 23% of pre-schoolers (2-5 years old) are overweight. 14% of school going children aged (6-14 years) are overweight. This is more than twice the worldwide prevalence of 6.7%. In a 20-year longitudinal study, if you were obese between the ages of 4-8 years, then boys were 20 times and girls were 42 times more likely to be obese when they were 16-18 years.

Overweight children not only have to deal with bullying and teasing at school, but also the long-term impact on their health as their risk of developing chronic diseases of lifestyle such as diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidaemia (high-fat levels), chronic inflammation, and hyperinsulinemia. Public health concerns are rising amongst healthcare workers, paediatricians, nutritionists and dieticians alike.

In fact, this is the first time in many generations that children born from 2000 onwards in South Africa may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, bucking the international trend of children living to be 120 years old or more. Our health indicators are showing that overall, our children are not well-nourished enough for the long term, let alone the short term.

Well-nourished children have the fuel to flourish because learning becomes a whole lot easier when a child has sufficient energy for growth, learning and a strong immune system. My particular interest and contribution to the summit was to help healthcare practitioners to connect the dots by gaining a clearer understanding of children’s behaviour around food. There is a strong connection between their relationship with food and their relationship with their parents. Children commonly use food as a weapon against their parents and parents use food as an ally – they compensate with it.

When children feel understood, when they feel ‘seen’ and validated by their parents and/or primary caregivers – their emotional cup, as I call it, is filled. The emotional diet of a child is just as important as their nutritional diet. When children feel invisible, when their fundamental needs are not being met – they are tired, hungry, thirsty and in need of the right kind of attention (their cup is empty, so to speak), they may start to manipulate their parents by becoming fussy eaters, not eating or over-eating. They may also pester their parents for less nutritious foods with the promise that they will behave better if they are given what they want.

When busy parents are faced with a difficult child, on top of being tired themselves and feeling guilty because they have been at work all day apart from their children, they are inclined to give in to nagging, and compensate. They give in to their child’s demands in order to keep the peace and to remain on friendly terms with their child. They want to be their child’s ‘peerent’ not their parent. This kind of short-term parenting can set up poor nutritional and behavioural habits in children that could impact on their health or ability to make good choices for the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, the Sunday Times Generation Next survey published in June 2018 (based on the research by HDI), highlighted the three top items children pester their parents for as being cereals, fast foods and energy drinks (in that order). Youth in South Africa between 8 and 25 years of age impact on 66% of the household spend, which translates into R137 billion of direct spend annually.

Ninety-eight percent of food advertising in the media is not for broccoli or yoghurt but has a high correlation to the three items that children pester their parents for the most! And, unless the cereals are slow energy release, the items on this list are low on nutrition and protein for sustained energy and high in salt, sugar and the wrong types of fats. This kind of fast-burning fuel kicks in quickly, raises blood sugar levels and then rapidly drops them. This is far from ideal for young growing minds and bodies that require protein and nutrition-dense foods on a regular basis for optimal performance and emotional stability.

Being the Yoghurt Summit, yoghurt was the foodstuff in the spotlight. Last year’s summit focused on the importance of yoghurt for gut health while this year’s summit looked at the link between dairy products (milk, yoghurt and maas), but most particularly on yoghurt consumption, and its impact on cardiometabolic risk, diabetes and weight gain, among other things. Research is increasingly pointing to the fact that yoghurt is a particularly nutrient dense dairy product that seems to provide more protection against weight gain and type 2 diabetes. Nutrient dense means that you get more nutrients in the fewest number of kilojoules.

According to nutritionists, yoghurt is a matrix of goodness; it contributes to intakes of protein, calcium, bioactive lipids, and several other micronutrients. Another key feature of yoghurt vs other dairy food is the fermentation with bacterial strains commonly known as probiotics which are very important for gut health. With the latest research findings that 95% of the feel-good hormone serotonin is found in the gut, and that there are more neurons in the gut than in the brain, there is more interest in gut health than ever before. Yoghurt, therefore, has a potentially greater beneficial effect on metabolic health than non-fermented dairy products such as milk. Some experts refer to yoghurt as “milk made better”.

Unfortunately, South Africans don’t eat much yoghurt – only about 4kg of yoghurt a year per person on average compared to French and Dutch people whole eat almost 20kg per year. Extrapolated, this means we are eating less than 100g of yoghurt per week. The government’s national recommendation is to have milk, maas or yoghurt every day. A serving of yoghurt should be 200g. Low consumption of yoghurt represents a missed opportunity to contribute to a healthy lifestyle, as yoghurt provides a good to excellent source of highly bioavailable protein and is a source of calcium as well as a source of live cultures that may provide a range of health benefits.

When I think of yoghurt as a healthy food option, it would be in its natural, plain state, not a sweetened yoghurt. However, yoghurt is a naturally sour product which means we often add honey or fruit to it to make it more palatable. Danone South Africa’s managing director Hendrik Born explained that they are gradually decreasing the sugar levels in their sweetened products, but they need to do so slowly to help customers to adjust their palates.

According to the Dr Andre Marette, scientific director at the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods Laval University in Quebec, who opened the summit, studies suggest that regular yoghurt eaters have healthier eating behaviours and a better lifestyle. Yoghurt consumption has been associated with eating less fast food, fried food, fried chips, processed meat, red meat, pizzas, soft drinks and alcohol, and being more physically active. In my opinion, yoghurt eaters are more dietary and health aware on the whole.

Professor Angelo Tremblay, from the Department of Kinesiology, also at Laval University, explained that the substitution of yoghurt, an energy-controlled food of high nutritional value, for foods high in energy and low in nutrients, may also contribute to findings that yoghurt can assist with weight loss. He said that population studies indicate yoghurt intake can help manage body weight gain and reduce Type 2 Diabetes incidence even with less than 1 portion of 175g per /week.

In the South African context this would mean increasing servings of yoghurt from 1 portion of 100g (the typical size of small commercially available tubs) to two yoghurts a week. As yoghurt is such a versatile food, it can be given to children for breakfast with fruit or muesli or in the form of a yoghurt fruit shake, something that my children grew up on. Adding a small tub of yoghurt to a child’s school lunchbox is so easy, and it can even make a great dessert. There is no end to what one can do with yoghurt. I throw it into baked goods for extra moisture and even into chicken dishes for supper.

The bottom line is that South African children need to be eating more nutritionally dense foodstuffs for more sustained energy. Learning is not all in the head. Children need a well-nourished body in order to flourish. The brain-body connection is scientifically undeniable. As Lebo Matshego-Roda, a local nutritionist and researcher at Unisa said in her address at the summit, “Inadequate nutrition in childhood can equal development gaps and reduce a child’s overall potential.” There isn’t a parent who doesn’t want their child to learn with as little stress as possible and to achieve their potential.

While nutrition is part of the journey of laying strong foundations in a child’s life, there is a direct link between children’s eating habits and their emotional stability. Both their physical and emotional health have a direct impact on their ability to learn.

Parents can use food as a great tool for emotional bonding beyond food being a source of energy. It’s about spending time together focused on the same goal, such as food preparation. When parents invite their children in to help them they create opportunities for passing on the baton of responsibility to their children by ensuring that they acquire life skills in the kitchen – learning how to measure, mix, pour, stir, cut, grate, wash up, pack away and much more. This helps children to believe “I am, I can, I will” in a very concrete, tangible way that is very different from classroom learning.

Cooking and eating together provide moments when families can share time, space and pace with each other. Even if it doesn’t happen at every dinner time, families should try and cook and eat together as often as possible as a way to future-proof their children physically, mentally and emotionally.

So, back to where I started with this opinion piece: cooking and eating together provide opportunities for passing on family values, ground rules, habits and life skills from parents to their children. This is the ‘hidden curriculum’ which is a vital part of child development in any country.

Nikki Bush is a speaker and author on parenting. Follow her on Twitter: @bushnikki