MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 26-Jun-14 10:22:51

Guest post: Treat culture - to blame for the obesity crisis?

Today, nutritionists have told parents to stop buying fizzy drinks and ban fruit juices at the dinner table in a bid to reduce childhood obesity. Here, Sarah Boseley - author of The Shape We're In - tackles the thorny issue of how we feed our kids. How can we ensure they eat healthily, without making an issue out of food?

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Sarah Boseley

Journalist and author of 'The Shape We're In'

Posted on

Thu 26-Jun-14 10:22:51

(112 comments)

Parents face 'emotional blackmail' when it comes to food

We live in a treat culture, besieged by advertisers of sweets and chocolates, urging us to reward ourselves and our kids. Because we're worth it. Because it will make them happy. Because it is a kind of tangible proof that we love them. And because, our kids tell us, 'all our friends have this stuff and their parents are kinder than you.' There is massive emotional blackmail going on when it comes to food.

Even if you take a tough(ish) line on sweets, it is all but impossible to resist the pressure to allow snacks. Children do get hungry between meals, especially if they didn't eat a proper breakfast or lunch. I have a child who is a monster when she is hungry and sweetness itself once she has had something to eat. Breadsticks and apples work when they are small, but then the clamour for crisps and chips and cake begins. Do you give in or do you make an issue of food? Either course seems hazardous.

Usually the arguments catch us at a bad moment - typically at the local shops or the supermarket. They may be tired and fractious, or simply full of energy. We are plain tired. Are we prepared to wage war with the kids at the checkout? Or is it just not worth the grief?

No, it's not important enough for tears and tantrums - theirs or ours - but yes, it does matter. Among the many things I learned in the course of my research for this book is that our attitudes to food - not only what we give our children, but how we ourselves react and behave - crucially shape their future eating habits. But, I came to realise, these habits are really not entirely our fault. In fact, it's not even mostly our fault if our children are eating too much of the wrong foods and drinking too much sugar-laden pop. There is a massively rich and influential food and drink industry out there - and I include the supermarkets in that - which has spent decades persuading us it is normal to buy this stuff and that the convenience will allow us to live more fulfilled lives.

Children do get hungry between meals, especially if they didn't eat a proper breakfast or lunch. I have a child who is a monster when she is hungry and sweetness itself once she has had something to eat. Breadsticks and apples work when they are small, but then the clamour for crisps and chips and cake begins. Do you give in or do you make an issue of food? Either course seems hazardous.

But even well clued-up parents resistant to marketing can have a tough time trying to encourage their children to eat a healthy diet. The first problem is establishing what a healthy diet looks like, with competing claims that sugar is the cause of obesity rather than that old villain, saturated fat. As we now know, there is sugar in pasta sauce and in ketchup, and it is ladled into “low fat” yoghurts to improve the taste.

We used to think fruit juice and smoothies were undeniably healthy, but now it turns out that the concentrated juice contains excessive sugar. And while trans-fats are evil (and disappearing) and too much saturated fat in meat and butter is not recommended, olive oil and other mono- and polyunsaturated fats are positively good for you.

I think there are two main rules of thumb. Robert Lustig, the US paediatrician who is the most vocal opponent of sugar, says “Eat real food”. Other experts say similar things. Processed food is bad news. Vegetables, fruit (eaten whole!), nuts, pulses, fish and lean meat are all good. It does mean a return to cooking, but not the sort of labour-intensive dinner and dessert our grans used to serve up. There are quick and easy meals - bolognaise, grilled meat, fish fried in olive oil - which don’t take that much longer than heating up a ready meal out of a box. Nor are they always more expensive, as food campaigner and MN blogger Jack Monroe has shown.

Will the kids eat it? Ah. That's where the second, more difficult rule comes in. Our own attitude plays a part. They are influenced by what we eat and what they see us enjoy, particularly in the early years before the cultural influences and peer group pressure start. A parent who says “if you eat your dinner you can have some ice cream” is setting up a conviction in the child that dinner is not as nice as pudding. Psychologist Jane Ogden from Surrey University told me that there are three main influences on our developing appetite: our culture (chicken nuggets in the UK, fish and rice in Japan), our parents’ likes and dislikes (and later on, those of their mates) and association (chocolate mousse is preferable to fish).

They need to see that we enjoy eating green beans. In an ideal world, we’d all sit round the table together, eating the same thing, taking time over a meal and having enough to stay full until the next one. Yes, it's tough and maybe only fully doable at the weekend. But I think we're worth it.

By Sarah Boseley

Twitter: @sarahboseley

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 11:25:06

The treat culture evolved through sugar being rare and expensive. No patronising government advice will change the attitude of a nation about a food which is both addictive and deeply culturally aspirational.

So make sugar a true treat again, by making it expensive and rare.

Lottapianos Thu 26-Jun-14 12:52:18

Very good article. Parents need to feed their children the same food as they eat, and avoid 'children's foods', which are usually processed rubbish, like fish fingers and chicken nuggets. And they need to do this from the earliest days of weaning.

It's such a good point about making dessert out to be the truly rewarding part of eating, and the main dinner is something to get out of the way first. Similarly insisting that a child finishes everything on their plate, rather than encouraging them to regulate their own appetites from the earliest days. So allowing them to feed themselves, and no praising for eating a certain type or amount of food.

There is new advice from the government today about how parents should be offering only water or milk to their children, no fizzy drinks or squash. I understand the article's point about advertising and peer pressure with school age children but for under 5s there is no excuse for giving sugar laden drinks.

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 13:26:22

My rather simplistic view of it is that it took centuries, possibly millennia of neuro physiological evolution to make us value sugar so highly. Our attitude to women took about the same amount of time to embed in our psyche and that was without the chemical aspect involved with effect of sugar. It took changes in the law and a lot of struggle to change that 'behaviour', and it will take the same for sugar and obesity.

You can't do this through worthy campaigns about attitudes and well meaning suggestions of jugs of water on tables, it will take a hefty sugar tax. That way the rich can get fat if they want to and the rest of us get to live longer and healthier lives, while saving taxpayers and NHS money.

Only when it costs £20.00 for a large bar of cadburys is this ever going to change.

BIWI Thu 26-Jun-14 13:37:33

Too simplistic.

Yes, sugar is bad for us. But it's actually too much carbohydrate in our whole daily diet that is causing obesity. Not only in our meals, but also in our snacks - and the fact that snacking is something that we expect to do.

If we ate less carbohydrate and more protein/fat we wouldn't be so hungry between meals, would snack less, and would assault our bodies with much less sugar.

And just to make it clear - the body treats carbohydrate in the same way as sugar, so it's not just 'obvious' sugar that we need to watch out for, but also sugar from bread/pasta/rice etc.

Agree BIWI, the constant topping up with carbs and sugar is crazy as well as detrimental to your health. I also don't understand why anybody would take their children to the supermarket - that's what Internet shopping is for.

I also hate a lot of the language about food that gets passed onto kids - this is naughty, aren't I bad for having cake etc.

Lottapianos Thu 26-Jun-14 13:48:26

'I also hate a lot of the language about food that gets passed onto kids - this is naughty, aren't I bad for having cake etc'

YES! I work in an office with all women and this is non-stop if anyone is passing round biscuits or chocolates or whatever- 'oh no, trying to be good', 'well I might be naughty and have one'. Such an unhealthy attitude.

ppeatfruit Thu 26-Jun-14 13:51:57

The thing is it's also the WAY we eat. The Paul Mckenna way of eating says that we need to eat Slowly and consciously (not while we're on line etc.) really taste and chew our food. A cadburys bar then tastes VILE because it's got more sugar and fat in it than proper chocolate.

Proper chocolate is fine in moderation. I reckon a lot of obesity is down to driving and, being driven, everywhere and DCS staying in ' or not being allowed to go out to play' and playing computer games.

Of course it's best to drink water (filtered water is best ) less salty than a lot of mineral waters. Try telling the govt. to forgo the huge taxes it makes on all the shit fizzy, high sugar, chemically sweetened drinks.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 13:59:55

i'm so tired of reading this stuff. the thing is my son isn't fat. apparently we have a 'childhood obesity' problem and all of us are meant to become neurotic and obsessed about what our children do and don't eat. but what if your child isn't fat, is very active, does eat enough healthy stuff etc - why should he not have biscuits or sweets? i was raised in the 70's where most of us ate tons of sugar, fizzy drinks and god awful freezer food yet virtually no one i know if fat or sitting around stuffing themselves on sweets endlessly and in fact most of us love our veg and real food despite it having been downplayed during our childhood as everyone aspired to the findus pancake type convenient/modern food thing.

my son, much as it was for me, helps himself to the biscuit tin and i have no qualms buying sweets every other day. he is a grazer and there is no way he could live from mealtime to mealtime (as defined by whoever decided we need three meals a day even though personally i'd be bloated and exhausted if i ate that often and some people would faint if they left it that long).

the key is in not obsessing about all this. if there are children who are obese deal with those parents and children. the more government advice and pseudo science (usually paid for by the food industry) that comes out the more people are going to start saying what a load of nonsense and going back to just feeding their kids what works for them and not getting their knickers in a twist about biscuits.

children eat lots and have a very sweet tooth - they also have tiny bellies and are extremely active and growing - they eat a lot of calories. my generation did and it didn't translate into obesity or a lifetime of poor diet. if anything has changed it isn't sugar but the additives and things like trans fats and the use of high glucose syrups and such in things and those are matters to take up with the food industry not to pretend parents should control rather than just hold food profiteers to high standards.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:02:42

i've just read some comments. this whole nation seems to meet the criteria for an eating disorder with a side helping of ocd these days. we've gone completely mental about food and diet.

SarcyMare Thu 26-Jun-14 14:07:04

isn't the main difference between our childhood in the 70s and today in that we ran out the door after breakfast played all morning ran back in for lunch, ate left came back for dinner.

And watching my son two children playing any game is far more active than 1 child and a parent.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:11:04

but sarcy - do you eat like your parents? the op is saying it's a fundamental influence but the reality is i don't know anyone of my generation who eats like their parents ate. so are we all anomalies?

yes we were maybe a bit more active but i should think the main difference was yes we ate lots of fat and lots of sugar but it was fat and sugar rather than cheap industry modified adulterations of those things which are about more than just calories i should think but about the effect on the body.

though to be honest i'm not even convinced our children as a population have an obesity problem - some children/families yes but then address those.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:13:56

really we need to see the full demographics of who these obese children are in order to draw any conclusions otherwise it's like any old undifferentiated stat that draws broad population conclusions rather than properly address individual conditions such as socio-economic factors or geographic location. are these urban? rural? rich? poor? male? female? etc children? are there patterns in their lifestyles or access to certain things? are they people with access to decent food or stuck shopping from a corner convenience store? there are so many factors yet we never get a proper breakdown just another 'our kids are fat' headline grabber.

MerryMarigold Thu 26-Jun-14 14:21:43

I beg to differ. I say, "You can have ice cream if you eat your dinner. This because your dinner is much healthier than ice cream and if you can't finish your dinner then you're not hungry enough to move on." It's not about it being nicer, or a treat for eating their food, just the next thing if you have space for it. If you don't have space that's ok as it's not adding to your nutritional needs anyway. (They know that too). So why even have ice cream in the house? Well, I think it means they won't get totally obsessed over it when they go to friends' houses or parties. Also it is enjoyable. It tastes nice, but no, it's not hugely healthy so it's ok to have it sometimes but you don't NEED it like you need protein, fibre, vitamins.

I am not obese at all and my kids are positively slim. We only have water on the table. But if we go out I let them have a fizzy drink as part of the experience of eating out. For me it's more about teaching them what's healthy and that things which aren't healthy but taste nice, are ok to have sometimes. No one is going to persuade them that ice cream tastes horrible!

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:26:26

there is no way on earth any poor child is going to get away with not knowing what has been decreed 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'. even 4yos are sledgehammered with it. the words are so overused they're beginning to sound like nonsense.

MerryMarigold Thu 26-Jun-14 14:26:40

Honeybadger, I agree with everything you've said. As my Ds2 would say, "They're assessed with it!"

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:27:04

lol utterly assessed

MerryMarigold Thu 26-Jun-14 14:29:53

Yes, we do have a broad definition of healthy. My basic definition is that if it doesn't have a load of additives, it's fairly healthy. Home made cake is definitely healthy grin.

DiamondsAndRust Thu 26-Jun-14 14:33:36

Very interesting article. Sugar and snacking are far from being the sole cause of the obesity crisis, but they are a significant factor. We have developed a mindless grazing culture in the UK; we don't savour or linger over our food as e.g. Mediterranean countries tend to do, but rather treat it either as a simple fuel or something that has an entire moral code of its own (the whole naughty/nice scenario).

We somehow need to put an end to the sugar=treat mentality. I think this needs to start in childhood, by eschewing the idea of 'kids' food' and insisting on proper meals rather than snacks. As ppeatfruit has already said, it's not just about what we eat, but how we eat it - basic things like teaching children to sit down to eat rather than snacking on the hoof and really thinking about how our food tastes. Having worked in schools, and seen the 'quick turnaround' culture of the school dining hall, however, I suspect that this may be something of a challenge!

Also, we need to work on our entire definition of a 'treat'. Somehow this has changed since my own childhood from 'something that is only eaten very occasionally' to 'something we eat all the time but really shouldn't'. As a teacher, I also see a lot of food-related bribery going on - things like rewarding good behaviour with chocolate. This may mean that sugar comes to be equated with feelings of self-worth.

As someone who doesn't have a sweet tooth and whose own parents were sensible and enlightened about food I'm continually shocked by the number of sugary 'treats' that are consumed daily by my colleagues. First people brought in cakes/chocolates for their birthday, then this became normalised so that some kind of sugar/carb-laden treat now appears in the staff room every day. Normally the cake or tin of Quality Street will have been polished off by the end of the mid-morning break - I still find this amazing as I grew up with the idea that chocolate was to be eaten in moderation, in the evening and at weekends!

It doesn't tell the whole story, though - all of this needs to be looked at alongside exercise levels and other lifestyle issues.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:34:08

see i'm sure it used to be as simple as 'toxic v non-toxic'. now they're allowed to put toxic crap in food we have to have new labels called healthy v unhealthy. why not just go back to not being force fed toxic crap?

thecageisfull Thu 26-Jun-14 14:34:12

I was raised on irnbru and crispy pancakes, but not much of them. Portion sizes were smaller in my day. Every time I go home I'm struck by how small the glasses and cups are. I've been known to make 2 simultaneous cups of coffee after a night at my Mum's because her cups are too small. If you have an old lady living nearby, peer into their glass cupboard and be amazed.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 14:37:36

iron bru was probably made with sugar rather than glucose-fructose syrup (cheaper and sweeter and disastrous for health) in those days.

agree on smaller wine glasses but my aunt had sherry glasses a giant would have been proud of.

FuriousDuckling Thu 26-Jun-14 14:39:18

Merry I totally agree. I have known parents who go out of their way to avoid using dessert as a reward - result: child only wants to eat dessert because they don't understand that you need to eat real food too, and obviously it tastes better! I don't use a treat at the end of a meal as a bribe, but if my dcs don't eat proper food first, they are not allowed to simply fill up on pudding. I'm talking usually fruit or yogurt, not haribo!

Having said that - obesity is not the only problem with excessive sugar but also diabetes which is on the rise.

cdwales Thu 26-Jun-14 14:44:54

I was rather taken aback by the BBC headline about parents being urged to 'add less sugar'! The main source of sugar in all our diets is the hidden sugar added by manufacturers in even apparently 'savoury' food. My two have always had water with meals and no fizzy sugar water at all (they never liked it when they had it at friends' houses either). My mother was a nurse and health visitor and when she read Prof Yudkin's book in the 1970s she took immediate action! She banned us from adding sugar to our tea - in fact to anything except 1/2 tsp on our Cornflakes. We soon got used to it. She never bought us sweets either. I have naturally done the same with my two - both are v slim. As for nagging that is simply not tolerated and they have never done it - as I recall I simply stated without even looking at them that if they mentioned it again then X sanction would occur. Always I would listen to an argument (a case) though and they were often very inventive and amusing. Once we were coming home, desperately hot, from an air show and my 8 yr old DS suggested that we stop at MacDonalds because it had air-conditioning...This did give pause for thought and we stopped at Safeway and went to their cafe which also had AC!

MerryMarigold Thu 26-Jun-14 14:52:16

My BIL's dad is a GP. They were rampant on sugar in their house. He is totally 'assessed' with it (though he IS slim and healthy). Dsis cannot have biscuits or chocolate in the house as he will eat it ALL in one go. No such thing as a couple of biscuits. He also has massive dessert portions whenever there is dessert as he LOOOOVES it.

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