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?
Journalist and author of 'The Shape We're In'
Posted on: Thu 26-Jun-14 10:22:51
(116 comments )
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
I think we are getting fat because we like sweet food and avoiding activity. I don't think this is anything new - it's just that it's only recently that it has been possible for most people to live a life style where this is possible.
Not just possible - but easier than than the alternative.
I also agree with Merry Marigold - the more you exercise the more you are likely to eat healthily, the more inactive you are the more you are likely to feel lethargic and crave a sugar boost.
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.
So wish it was possible to get away with doing this now!
It's not so much sugar, in its natural form, that's added by the ton to all processed foods (including savories). It's HFCS -High Fructose Corn Syrup. This is a manufactured product, a by-product of the US corn industry. It's so cheap that it gets dumped - here, there, everywhere. USian farmers are subsidised to grow the corn. We are uninformed recipients of the most dysfunctional food system ever, and only an intensive educational campaign will raise our heads high enough to challenge it.
Read this half-hour essay: Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much. by Michael Pollan. It will save much more than kids' obesity.
Before I joined Mumsnet I read an article which highlighted the reality for many mothers who cannot afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Many rely on foodbanks. Many go without food in order to feed their children. This article prompted me to join this site.
Where is the 'treat culture' here.
"Major survey reveals money worries put strain on mums' relationships with their loved ones
Eighty percent of mums on a low family income said they felt guilty about how they brought up their children, according to a major survey released today.
Some 42% said this was because they could not afford to pay for their children to take part in the same activities as their friends and 18% said it was because they did not have the money to allow their kids to keep up with the latest fashions and gadgets.
The survey also revealed that in the last year nearly two thirds of mums have struggled to cover the cost of their day-to-day living expenses and 80% of those with a low family income have had to make cut-backs.
This includes 54% who have had to cut back on buying their children new clothes and 16% having to cut back on buying fresh fruit and vegetables for their children.
This had led to 39% of mums having to rely on overdrafts and 36% having to borrow from friends and family to get by.
Nearly half of mums say money worries are affecting their relationships with their children, the figures reveal.
And even more say financial concerns are putting a strain on their relationship with their loved ones.
The poll, conducted by Turn2us and Home-Start on the parenting website Mumsnet, revealed 43% of mums said their relationship with their children was affected by money worries and this rose to 59% for mums with a family income of £28,000 or less.
And 49% of mums with a low family income said they were sometimes grumpy and snappy with their children because of money worries with 13% even saying they felt their children resent them because they are unable to afford to buy them what they want.
Carolyn Longton, founder of Mumsnet, said: “Financial anxiety can definitely impact on family life and Mumsnet's discussion boards are full of conversations about how tough it can be to make ends meet. It's important that those who are struggling financially know that they are not alone and we know that being able to share their anxieties on Mumsnet as well as getting practical help and support from charities like Turn2us and Home Start can be of enormous benefit not just to the mother, but to the whole family.”
Mums with money worries also said financial concerns put a strain on their relationships with their other halves, including 76% of mums with a low family income. Some 41% said they often argued about money worries and 28% said they do not get to spend enough quality time together because one of them is always working – with 33% unable to go out on their own together because they cannot afford to pay for a babysitter.
Turn2us, who commissioned the survey with Home-Start, helps people understand the often complex world of benefits and grants through its free to use website".
Director Alison Taylor said: “Many of the families who visit Turn2us are struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table, let alone pay for luxuries like babysitters.
“Mums face enormous pressures in their day-to-day lives but we would like to remind mums in financial need that there is help out there and they should visit the Turn2us website to make sure they are claiming all the benefits and grants they are entitled to.”
Many overweight people are emotional eaters for whom eating relieves stress or anxiety.
Honey now it really sounds like you're making excuses for drinking beer
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.
sorry - just seen your reply. the thing is if i do force myself to eat in the day i become ravenous.
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 !
incidentally when i do try to eat more frequently and regular meals i feel awfully sluggish and my digestion is miserable.
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.
unreal molasses are delicious! 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 !!
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.
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 . 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!!
Honey, however busy you are, you can surely manage breakfast and lunch or a couple of snacks. If not, you are far too busy and will die of a heart attack, not induced by obesity but by stress! There's more to health than healthy eating.
ppeatfruit. You also crave sugar for energy, so tiredness and small kids could have done it for your dh too. Anecdotally, I also crave sugar less when I am exercising more, like my body just doesn't want stuff that's bad for it. It's odd.
Interesting about the people who don't (or didn't) crave sugar;dh never even liked sugary carby food in his slim 20s but now he's hooked on it, and a pre type 2 diabetic, I reckon it's just the eating of it that does it! we're all different in our reactions to it as well.
I don't have refined sugar but I cook with molasses and maple syrup occasionally and find I want a bit of the brownie (or whatever) every day so even the BEST unrefined sweeteners have that inherent in them. it's like coffee.
not every day unreal! honest. no, it's more i've noticed say i'm having a really busy active day and haven't eaten, i am likely to crave having a beer which this discussion has made me realise is probably to do with the sugar and given i don't really eat anything with sugar added on a regular basis beer is possibly what my body associates with a sugar fix. i may experiment and see the next time it happens if a sugary alcohol free drink sates it the same - then i will know it's about sugar.
Honeybadger you don't eat all day then crave for a drink? That really doesn't sound healthy at all.
That's interesting about your son Jane, I used to be the same as a child but it was partly because we didn't have much sugar at home so I valued it more than I craved it. At 14 things turned upside down, and I think changes in the teenage brain don't help, that's exactly when we are looking for stimuli and exactly when we are all let out of school for lunch to the nearest sweet shop.
I disagree that people are being smug, it just highlights that government advice simply winds everyone up, not just those who can't afford fresh veg or those who have no willpower.
Consider the smoking ban. Years of government advice and tweaking advertising. Decades in fact, meanwhile we all got sicker. Then the smoking ban comes in (fairly quickly, unfairly in Scotland first) and now nobody peeps about it. We need rules from on high, not just kindly advice.
I'm not sure whether health risks from smoking are higher than those from sugar, but over the years it may cost the NHS far more. diabetics live on for decades on medications.
oh and jane my sister was the one piece a day and torture everyone else with her ability to make easter eggs last months. she is now clinically obese and has absolutely no self restraint so clearly that chemistry is plastic like most of our neural functioning.
for sure ppeat but it is interesting to realise that what you assume is hankering after one may actually be the other. i am not a daytime eater so when i get an out of nowhere craving for a drink in the late afternoon it could actually be that my body/brain has learnt that's where it can get quick sugar from
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