Say what? What are children in New Zealand eating?

Just what New Zealand children are eating isn’t clear and new research aims to find out.

Dr Helen Eyles

"I have been interested in health, and nutrition in particular, since I was a young child. I believe I inherited this from my parents – as a child growing up we had a large vegetable garden and several fruit trees, and my mother was a very contemporary cook. Both parents instilled in my sister and I the importance of helping others, and my interest in nutrition-related diseases stemmed from losing a parent to a non-communicable disease at a young age. These life experiences have really shaped who I am and my passion for health research." Dr. Helen Eyles.

Dr Helen Eyles, Senior Research Fellow at The National Institute for Health Innovation, University of Auckland, has been awarded a Heart Foundation Senior Fellowship and Project Grant to come up with real-world solutions to improve the diets in our children and tamariki.

One of her key aims is to find out more about children’s dietary sodium and potassium intakes, which are linked to cardiovascular disease later in life.

The Heart Foundation announced $3.7 million of funding today for heart research and specialist training for New Zealand cardiologists in 2019, bringing the total awarded by the charity since its formation in 1968, to more than $74 million dollars.

High blood pressure leads to cardiovascular disease and the preference for salty food starts early in life. Diets high in salt (and sodium) and low in potassium in childhood can lead to high blood pressure. Although children and teens usually don't show the symptoms of heart disease, the silent build-up of plaque can start in childhood and can have a serious impact on their adult life.

“We know that ideal sodium and potassium intake is important across the lifecycle, because changes to the vascular system start very early in life. In New Zealand one in five adults has high blood pressure, and this burden is unequal, with Māori being 30% more likely than non-Māori to have high blood pressure.”

“Very little is known about children’s diets in New Zealand, with the most recent Children’s Nutrition Survey undertaken in 2002. The survey of children’s sodium and potassium intakes will be the first of its kind in New Zealand, and provide important, gold standard data on children’s intakes of these nutrients, and will provide us with information about blood pressure in a large group of children,” says Dr Eyles.

The researchers will sample 300 children aged eight to 11 throughout Auckland primary schools to gather the data. This will cover the socioeconomic spectrum and also consider differences in gender and ethnicity.

The findings of Dr Eyles research will also contribute to New Zealand’s commitment to The World Health Organisation in 2013 to reduce population sodium intake by 30 per cent by 2025. Despite this New Zealand adults currently consume 40 per cent more sodium and 10 per cent less potassium than recommendations and Dr Eyles says there is clearly room for improvement.

The new research will also involve developing a tool to help healthcare practitioners identify individuals with high sodium and low potassium diets so they can make lifestyle changes.

“The Heart Foundation funding is extremely valuable to progress my career and achieve my research aims. Without this funding it would not be possible to complete my planned research to contribute towards reducing blood pressure through dietary means in Aotearoa. I feel both humbled and privileged to be a Heart Foundation Senior Research Fellow.” – Dr Helen Eyles.

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