Here's one more reason to avoid junk food: it may be partly responsible for the increase in childhood asthma.

I have always wondered why asthma is increasing at such a rate in children. Twenty-five years ago, when I was still a student, asthma was not that common in medical college practice. In the last 10 years, there has been a steady increase in childhood asthma. At the Respiratory Research Foundation, we started looking for reasons and found three important causes: junk foods, passive smoking and lack of exercise.

More in urban areas

Scientists believe that junk food may be partly responsible for this increase in asthma. In our surveys, we noticed that prevalence of asthma was more in urban children than in rural areas. This is probably because there are fewer junk food outlets in rural areas. Also, their diet is richer in vitamins and minerals since they rely more on natural foods like fresh vegetables, milk, buttermilk and fruits. It is not uncommon to hear mothers complain that children do not eat fresh fruits. Canned drinks and juices have replaced fresh juices and the result is an increase in asthma.

A similar trend was noticed in Jeddah, which adopted westernised foods in some hotels. Researchers examined communities in Saudi Arabia where there were striking allergies across the country. They found that children who lived in the Westernised parts such as Jeddah were at a bigger risk for asthma because, in these areas, the diets are least nutritious.

The traditional Arabic diet is based on cow and goat milk, lamb, chicken, rice, vegetables, dates and local vegetables and contains none of the frozen foods increasingly found in city super markets. Our metropolises are no different with multiple super-markets and fast food joints. Not surprisingly asthma in children is increasing.

Include fruit and veggies

Prof. Martyn Partridge of the U.K.'s National Asthma Campaign says that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help prevent children from developing asthma and wheezy diseases.

We should take a clue from these studies that show the role of diet in childhood asthma. It is the responsibility of parents, teachers and physicians to ensure that children learn to enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits so that they do not get addicted to fast food. We also need to deal with the addiction to TV, which leads to lack of exercise and obesity; another contributing cause for asthma.

The writer is Chairman, Respiratory Research Foundation, Chennai. E-mail: drrnarasimhan@gmail.com

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012