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?

Sarah Boseley

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

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


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

ppeatfruit Mon 30-Jun-14 10:44:20

I find I want to EAT less when I'm exercising more MerryMarigold whatever the food. That's the answer isn't it? It's not really the sugar causing the weight problems it's (as a lot of us have already said) lack of exercise!!

funnyossity Mon 30-Jun-14 10:54:59

It's a bit more individual than that though I always have a much better appetite if I exercise. I look and feel better for the exercise but unless I was in an environment of restricted food I'd not lose weight.

MerryMarigold Mon 30-Jun-14 11:01:46

But ppeatfruit, why do we want to eat less when exercising? In theory we should be hungrier. I think I eat about the same but whereas I may crave a carrot and houmous when exercising, if I am not I would crave a Twix!

I did a detox recently and the main thing it made me realise is how rarely I feel hungry. I mean, not wanting the sensation of taste in my mouth or 'craving', but tummy rumbling hunger. It was fantastic. I am now trying to eat when I am hungry as opposed to 'craving'. Lost a lot of weight this way. I agree - portion sizes get out of control. You only need to go to America to see that. 2 people can usually share 1 adult portion!

unrealhousewife Mon 30-Jun-14 12:32:31

Of course if you tax refined sugar there may be a need to increase the cost of unrefined substitutes as well. The food industry would try and find a way round it.

Molasses mars bars might actually be quite nice.

unrealhousewife Mon 30-Jun-14 12:35:23

Merry the fasting diets are good for getting the appetite back in check. My problem is fitting it around family meals without making my daughters get food issues.

ppeatfruit Mon 30-Jun-14 13:07:19

It may be that I'm drinking more water merry? I follow the Paul Mckenna way of eating which among other things says to eat only when you're hungry and eat slowly (i think I said upthread) and I've lost 3 stone that had crept on also i'm maintaining, which is the most important thing grin. It is how our some of our dcs, and naturally slim people eat.

Drinking a herbal tea and or water when formerly I might have eaten really helps with the above way of eating.

MerryMarigold Mon 30-Jun-14 13:09:58

I have a daughter and 2 sons. I told them it was a 'detox' and I was doing it to get a bit more healthy. I think it's much more damaging to go on about being fat, than to do 9 days of 'different' food. You still eat 1 meal per day (which can be with family) and then it's shakes, supplements and ridiculous amounts of water! Basically, I cut snacks. (only for 9 days!) I was very hungry though.

ppeatfruit Mon 30-Jun-14 13:21:50

unreal molasses are delicious! grin dh is having them instead of his honey and jam fix. He has reflux and is feeling loads better now (also his type 2 diabetes is disappearing).

Paul mckenna is not about the actual food you eat (though he says to eat healthily). You 'd like it merry I'm never hungry on it !!

TheHoneyBadger Tue 01-Jul-14 10:49:26

it's not busy-ness really it's just the way my body and appetite is and always has been. i've never been able to eat breakfast - i literally feel sick attempting it and i don't tend to feel any sense of hunger till late in the day. the busy bit was obviously on a very busy day i'm expending more energy than usual and theorising that that is where the beer craving comes from - my body being desperate for a quick hit of energy and the only thing it associatees that with given i don't often eat sweet stuff is beer.

TheHoneyBadger Tue 01-Jul-14 10:50:09

incidentally when i do try to eat more frequently and regular meals i feel awfully sluggish and my digestion is miserable.

ppeatfruit Tue 01-Jul-14 12:51:31

Sorry to go on but P.M. says "Only eat when you're hungry" And STOP when you're satisfied (so don't overeat). If, e.g. you ate fruit like that TheHoney maybe you'd feel less sluggish. between meals. I never eat big meals I can't !

TheHoneyBadger Fri 04-Jul-14 10:15:48

sorry - just seen your reply. the thing is if i do force myself to eat in the day i become ravenous.

unrealhousewife Sat 05-Jul-14 16:00:08

Honey now it really sounds like you're making excuses for drinking beer smile

Funny though I was always the same, couldn't do breakfast. Now I do as a habit, but am rarely hungry in the morning. But now I'm 3st overweight. BC I would eat as I pleased and was slim and fit.

Snog Wed 29-Oct-14 06:06:24

Many overweight people are emotional eaters for whom eating relieves stress or anxiety.

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