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

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

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?

Sarah Boseley

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

Posted on: Thu 26-Jun-14 10:22:51

(116 comments )

Lead photo

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

Spottybra Thu 26-Jun-14 15:04:04

I'm so so tired of anyone putting the blame for obesity on food, sugar, the whole industry. It's a personal choice whether to overindulge in food or not, or to over indulge your children or not. Blogs like this, articles on this take away the personal responsibility issue. Best we teach our children to eat fresh at mealtimes and snack responsibly between meals (fruit, cheese, or a couple of biscuits not the whole pack) than blame others. I'm all for the food industry changing but this household is full fat, fresh foods and lots of exercise and we are not obese even with biscuits and crisps in the cupboards. Yes, I want to loose 6lbs, but its only a few pounds, not stones.

ppeatfruit Thu 26-Jun-14 15:23:25

cdwales MY dm read the same book as yours but she didn't BAN anything because she thought that would lead to us obsessing with sugary stuff (like a friend of ours who nicked sweets in our house that we didn't bother with because they were there). Did you not go overboard for sweets when you were away from yr. Mum?

Esmum07 Thu 26-Jun-14 16:14:30

I think, if nutritionists are going to try to cut obesity by singling out sugar, they need to talk to the leisure industry too. Particularly the kid friendly restaurants. Our DS doesn't like chocolate, ice cream, cream or juices (only drinks water). His choice, we've never imposed anything on him - to be honest in our household it's me and DH who devour chocolate so we could hardly ban him!

But, if we go out for a family meal I always check the menu on line for the kids. I don't have a major problem with chicken nuggets when we are out. He doesn't get them at home so I don't see an issue. What we have a problem with is the dessert choices and drinks options. Rarely do they offer a bottle of water - we always get tap water for him of course but we pay for a set menu which includes every sticky, vibrant colour drink imaginable but not usually water.

We went to one restaurant recently for a family birthday celebration. The kids choices of dessert? Ice cream with sticky sauce, ice cream with a milky way in it, or ... ice cream plain and simple. No fruit, no yoghurt. Luckily I had brought a banana with me as I had checked out the menu before we arrived so he had that.

Places like Beefeater and, dare I say it, McDonalds, seem to cater for kids who don't want ice cream by offering a fruit bag or fruit salad. They also offer a bottle of water in the set price for the meal. Beefeater even have a selection of yoghurts. I can't understand how the other places get away with it. If you're weaning your kids off sugar and take them out for a meal you'll be undoing all your hard work at the moment.

The place that really made my jaw drop was the hotel at Chessington World of Adventure. We took DS there a couple of years ago as a birthday treat and stayed overnight. The kids dessert menu was ice cream, chocolate mousse, donuts (which they had run out of so DS was out of luck). I asked the waitress why they didn't offer fruit. Because it goes off quickly she said. But, I said, you offer a fruit salad with breakfast and you're on the same site as a zoo so surely the fruit would get used up. Never got an answer that didn't consist of er, um, well you know and Chessington never answered my email...since then I always check the menu and bring my own dessert - if a restaurant has a problem with that I tell them they need to offer a better option than ice cream or chocolate.

ceeb Thu 26-Jun-14 16:22:04

We all know nowadays the basics of what is healthy and what is not - but what is hardest to get a handle on is what is healthy for one person might not be healthy for another. I have two children both who eat all the same healthy, non-processed foods and exercise the same amount. One is verging on skeletal and the other is verging on overweight. In my opinion, one should be eating more carbs, the other less. Their bodies actually need different things. But how do you go about actually serving them different meals? I don't want either of them to be worried about it (even if I do)...

melissa83 Thu 26-Jun-14 16:34:18

My dds eat sugar, sweets, biscuits but they are out every minute they are not at school. Eldest is 6 and other than checking shes ok I never see her shes in the park and running around, playing hula hoop, skipping etc.

ppeatfruit Thu 26-Jun-14 16:46:02

ceeb You've hit the nail on the head theregrin I follow my blood type Way of eating and it's fascinating because it explains why some people do well on the Atkins and others don't.

We are all different, I'm an A type and do well with some fish but very little white meat . DH is an O type and he can eat meat (all except pork) which is toxic for everyone.

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 16:51:41

Anyone who stops eating sugar for two weeks will find they don't actually want it and will start to appreciate naturally sweet foods.

Sugar is addictive and should be treated like any other addictive substance. It should have a hefty tax charged on it so that we do only use it as a treat. If a Mars bar. Costs £5 you're just not going to buy them and wean yourself off sugar.

White flour carbs aren't in the same league as sugar because the contain protein and you'd have to eat an awful lot to get the equivalent that's in the sugar in two biscuits.

Humans only ate naturally occurring sugar for hours ands of years, generally only in summer. It was very special stuff. We need to get back to the point where it is a rare occasion to eat sugar, a celebration, not a daily hit. Unless you're very rich of course.

ppeatfruit Thu 26-Jun-14 17:29:06

The problem with not eating ANY is that you can't eat 'normal' shop bought food because it's packed with sugar.Although in the USA it's much worse (or it was) have you read any American recipes for cakes or pumpkin pies? they are quite amazing.

I reckon it's their influence that has pushed the manufacturers, (Mcdiabetic anyone?) into plugging the high sugar, high fructose corn syrup produce it's cheap and addictive they can't loose grin sad

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 17:34:01

Normal shp bought food won't be packed with sugar if sugar costs £10 a kilo.

ppeatfruit Thu 26-Jun-14 18:01:56

Let's add aspartame etc. to that as well. IMO the chemical sweeteners are worse than sugar unreal

Xcountry Thu 26-Jun-14 18:26:36

I think its got something to do with it however the other major factor is too many kids spend too much time indoors playing xbox, minecraft, playstation, ipad, ipod or making fecking loom bands. I had a diet fgar from perfect according to these nutritionists but I was booted out at half 8 in the morning to go and play and I wasn't allowed in unless I needed the loo or it was lunchtime.

My kids are the same, I dont allow them to play in the house while its nice and light after school or holidays and weekends. They go out and play with their friends in the street, hide and seek, rounders, bikes, scooters, chasing each other, all the kids round here do and I can only think of one little boy who is on the larger side.

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 18:46:55

Add aspartame to that too, good idea.

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 18:48:38

Xcountry, my dd was the same, always out but thats stopped this year as she's older and she's gone up a size very quickly. It's quite scary.

melissa83 Thu 26-Jun-14 19:12:25

How old is she unreal?

CorusKate Thu 26-Jun-14 19:20:25

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

lljkk Thu 26-Jun-14 19:54:22

I definitely disagree with ALL these statements:

Do you give in or do you make an issue of food? Either course seems hazardous.

yes, it does matter.

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.

We used to think fruit juice and smoothies were undeniably healthy,

now it turns out that the concentrated juice contains excessive sugar.

trans-fats are evil

the sort of labour-intensive dinner and dessert our grans used to serve up. (mine didn't, why assume things about them??!!)

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.

Probably disagree with these statements:

“We live in a treat culture, besieged by advertisers of sweets and chocolates, urging us to reward ourselves and our kids.

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.

our attitudes to food - not only what we give our children, but how we ourselves react and behave - crucially shape their future eating habits.

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 21:25:38

Money shapes our eating habits more effectively. If sugar cost £10 a kilo, we wouldn't be eating so much of it.

Goldenbear Thu 26-Jun-14 22:03:40

If there is just a concern for weight problems I am convinced that a lot of these are caused by not enough exercise. My DS is 7 walks home from school with me every day and it is almost 2 miles. He was skinny before but he eats a lot of snacks and that does include chocolate, crisps. He is a nightmare without snacks- very moody and rude. When I'm organised he gets healthy snacks but sometimes it is slightly sugary stuff. I try to limit this not because of his weight but because of his health in the long run.

My Dad was talking to me about how rare it was to see overweight children when he was growing up in the 50's-60's and they did have puddings every night so what are the differentiating factors? Exercise is one if them but there is also research suggesting a link between the increased use of antibiotics in infants. The use of antibiotics in very young babies alters the composition of bacteria in the body and this in turn causes diseases like obesity and asthma, both of which have seen a dramatic increase in children afflicted with these health problems.

BIWI Thu 26-Jun-14 22:46:33

The trouble is, we're so used - now - to snacking that we think it's normal.

TheHoneyBadger said:

"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)."

If someone can't live from mealtime to mealtime without being bloated, exhausted or fainting is eating way, way too much sugar. Usually in the form of carbohydrate. And the problem is, that people like TheHoneyBadger will think that they're eating healthy snacks, because they will be serving fruit, or breadsticks.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 23:06:39

no you've misread that totally BIWI - i said i couldn't eat AS MUCH as three times a day without feeling bloated and stuffed. i don't feel the need to eat until pretty late in the day. i also know people who have found their body runs better on frequent small meals of complex carbs and protein - not a ton of sugar as you seem to assume. and where the fuck do you get people like me think they're eating healthy snacks on fruit or breadsticks?? i don't eat fruit personally or at least extremely rarely.

lost as to how your comments are anything to do with me bar a weird set of assumptions.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 23:08:22

the main person who comes to mind as little and often eater is actually obsessed with not eating sugar, processed foods and is into his paleo eating and gets literally everything organic due to a history with cfs actually.

weird assumptions.

rhetorician Thu 26-Jun-14 23:23:59

like honeybadger I don't worry too much about what my children do and don't eat - but they do have relatively non-sugary breakfast, no sweet things at school/nursery, and a home-cooked meal at home each day (often with dessert - the kinds of things I used to have, jelly, custard, but often fruit or yogurt). But they also have biscuits, cake (often homemade), but very few sweets and no juice/fizzy drinks. They both run around a lot, and are a healthy weight. We let them self-regulate, encourage them to eat fruit/veg, don't let them have dessert if they haven't eaten dinner.

But what I wanted to say is that unpopular as it may be to say this, but obesity in children is a class issue - the reasons aren't clear to me (food poverty, bad habits, lack of access to shops, etc?). I live in a deprived area (not in UK, but close) and I see a lot of overweight children and adults; my children's school is very middle class - 400+ kids and barely any of them are anything other than a healthy weight. These are broad brush strokes - I'm not saying that all middle class kids are fine, nor that no working class kids are a healthy weight. But it is striking to me, and we are failing everyone if we can't think seriously about the causes and come up with solutions.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 23:36:47

at the minute my son likes those little mini shredded wheat type things that look like cardboard for breakfast (dry). despite his taste for sweets and biscuits he doesn't look for sugar in other foods and prefers really plain simple foods - for example loves pasta, doesn't like sauce with it or anything on it but to have say a handful of prawns and some crispy veg with it on the side. there seem to be assumptions that kids who eat sweets will want and get sugary everything. it doesn't hold true here at least.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 26-Jun-14 23:38:23

for those worrying about carbs for breakfast he moves on next to wanting a small protein fix - maybe some cheese or egg. just to beat you to the sugar of carbs malarchy.

unrealhousewife Thu 26-Jun-14 23:55:06

Absolutely rhetorician, as I said, charge a tenner for a kilo of sugar and the poor will be less overweight. They won't even miss it, as it becomes slightly unpalatable once you have stopped taking it.

All this pissing about with jugs of water, x a day and 60 minutes of exercise is really getting on my nerves now. How can you do 60 minutes of exercise if you're 5 stone overweight, haven't got a table to stand your jug on, and can't afford the ridiculous prices charged for fresh veg?

They've been calling it the white death as long as I can remember.

It's all about the money as the song goes. Meanwhile the NHS has been starved paying for the huge costs of care for the nations damaged bodies.

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