A recent study on asthma and allergies among children suggests a connection between fast food and immunity.
"When I hear somebody coughing, it's like a drum in my chest," says Kaltham Al Thani. Al Thani's six children, ages four to 16, all have asthma, and the pain of seeing her children suffer has stayed with her over the years. "When they were young, they were not able to play and sleep normally because they were coughing all the time," says Al Thani, who lives in Dubai. "When they were growing up and joining school, they missed classes when they were sick."
Al Thani and her family are not alone; asthma is a common problem in the UAE and many other developed countries. Roughly 13 per cent of the population suffers from asthma and about eight per cent have allergic rhinitis - inflammation of the nasal mucous membrane. And the figures may be higher in children.
Most parents of asthmatic children would try anything to help their child's condition; and here's a method that might be simple: the latest findings from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (Isaac), published last month in the journal Thorax, conclude that eating three or more servings of fast food per week is linked to the severity of allergic asthma, eczema and rhinitis among children in the developed world. The authors suggest that a fast-food diet may be contributing to the rise in these conditions.
The study - the largest of its kind - focused on the eating habits of two age groups: more than 319,000 13- to 14-year-olds and more than 181,000 6- to 7-year-olds, from more than 50 countries around the world. The researchers asked whether they had symptoms of asthma (wheezing), rhinoconjunctivitis (a runny or blocked nose accompanied by itchy and watery eyes) and eczema (skin becomes rough and inflamed with blisters causing itching and bleeding). They also asked whether and how often they ate foods including meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, pulses, rice, butter, eggs and fast food / burgers.
After taking account of factors that might influence the results, such as gender, region of the world and gross national income of the participants' country, the results showed that fast food was associated with current and severe symptoms of all three of the conditions in the teenage group and with asthma and rhinitis in the younger group. Three or more weekly servings of fast food were linked to a 39 per cent increased risk of severe asthma among teenagers and a 27 per cent increased risk among children.
Eating fruits three or more times a week, on the other hand, was associated with fewer symptoms of all three conditions in children and of asthma and rhinitis among the teenagers.
The results might, said the authors, be a result of fast food containing high levels of saturated fats and trans-fatty acids - known to affect immunity; and the high levels of antioxidants and other biologically active factors in fruit.
Before parents panic about their children's diet, though, it is worth noting that the study - by the authors' own admission - did not prove cause and effect between the foods and the symptoms.
According to Dr Mike Loubser, Paediatrician and Clinical Immunologist at the Infinity Health Clinic in Dubai, the results should be treated with some caution.
"The data are interesting," he says, "but far from conclusive. This type of study was not set-up to answer a clinical question, ie: 'Is the consumption of junk food associated with an increased incidence of eczema and other allergies?' Instead it results from data mining, where a large body of data is collected for various reasons (Isaac study) and associations are looked for."
Loubser notes that a large number of potentially confounding variables such as socioeconomic status and the precise definition of junk food might have a bearing on the findings.
Irrespective of the accuracy of the study, however, Loubser warns of other risks associated with fast food. "The single biggest concern about junk food is the epidemic of childhood obesity, which is responsible for increased rates of diabetes, hypertension and elevated cholesterol."
That, parents will agree, is as good a reason as any to keep our children out of fast-food joints.
Help your child eat better
- Eat together. Having regular meals together as a family helps to establish healthy habits. Make mealtimes sociable and fun and, if you can, eat around a table rather than in front of the television.
- Make snacks count. It's all too easy to fall back on junk food for snacks in-between meals. Leave plenty of fruit, chopped vegetables and whole grain snacks around for children to snack on if they get hungry between meals.
- Set a good example. Children learn by example, remember this when addressing your own habits. If you are a junk food addict yourself, it's harder to insist on healthy food for the rest of the family.
- Cook at home. Eating out is convenient and fun, but the best habits are established at home and home-cooked meals tend to be lower in fat, salt and sugar than restaurant food.
- Get the kids involved. Children are more likely to experiment with healthy foods if they are involved in cooking. You might be surprised by what they are capable of and there are plenty of cookery classes for children if you think they need some outside help.