Children no longer seeing junk food as a ‘treat’. Why not?

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I think they’d be few people who will not have noticed that children’s diets have deteriorated significantly over the last few decades. More and more, it seems, children are eating less real food, and way more rubbish stuff such as processed foods high in refined sugar, processed fats and other unwanted additives including salt, colourings, flavourings and artificial sweeteners. I read this week that the British Heart Foundation in the UK has recently conducted a poll in which children were quizzed on their attitude to food. Apparently, more than four out of five of them did not regard crisps as anything special, and more than half did not consider sweets to be a ‘treat’. The idea here is that our children’s diets have become so pervaded with rubbish food that this food is now considered the norm.

As a result, the a spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation has claimed that the marketing of junk food to children is at the root of these problems, and there has been renewed calls for the laws to be tightened in this area. Much that I’d like to blame the aggressive marketing and promotion of nutritionally suspect foods for the problems children are having with their diets, it seems to me that only part of the problem lies with the food manufacturers.

My belief is that one of the reasons children do not see foods like crisps and confectionery as a treat is not only because these foods have become commonplace in the diet, but also because children are not given consistent and honest messages about the essentially unhealthy nature of these foods.

When talking to parents about how to handle the feeding of their children, I’m often asked something like: Is it OK for my child to eat junk from time to time?� Generally speaking, I believe the answer to this question is yes”. However, I usually add a caveat to this piece of advice which goes along the lines of: If you feed your child junk food just make sure you tell them that’s what it is – junk food.�

The rationale behind this advice is that eating junk food is one thing, not even knowing that it’s junk food is another. I actually see the latter as a far more corrosive factor in the long term. The fact of the matter is many children have little or no idea just how unhealthy some foods are because they are not given consistent messages about these foods. Children have the potential to be overwhelmed by marketing and advertising that positions food in a way that makes them attractive. You wouldn’t expect such messages to tell children the truth about these foods would you?

The people that have the most potential to act as a counterbalance to the marketing and misinformation that pervades nutrition are generally the parents. And I recommend that parents grasp the nettle here and give it straight to their kids. So, if you’re a parent, imagine you’re about to take your child (as a treat) to a fast food joint. Some parents will feel a bit uneasy about this on some level, but will rationalise that occasional indiscretions of this nature are unlikely to harm their child. This is almost certainly correct. But instead of quashing any feeling of uneasiness, I recommend expressing your feelings of unease. So, before even getting into the fast food joint you might contemplate saying something to your child like: We’re off to xxxxxxxxxxx for a treat. The reason why this is a treat and we don’t go to this place often is because the food they serve there is rubbishy and unhealthy. It’s OK to eat it once in a while, but a lot of this food is the sort of thing that can make us sick, so we don’t want to eat too much of it.�

What’s happened here is that while the fast food has not been vetoed (an outright ban can just make kids want something all the more), your child has been told in no uncertain terms your opinion of the food, which has added to their nutritional knowledge and education. I encourage a similar approach when giving a child anything that would generally be regarded as unhealthy, whether that be a crisps, confectionery, fast food, soft drinks or microwaveable lasagne. Use this approach consistently, and your child can never really be in any doubt about the appropriateness of junk food in their diet.

To balance this, you might also want to give your child clear and consistent messages about what is healthy too. This doesn’t have to be a mini-nutrition lecture every time you sit down to a meal, but there’s certainly no harm in mentioning from time to time why, say, you think it’s a good idea for us all to eat some fruit and vegetables.

The end result of all of this is that children can grow up with enormous food and nutrition awareness. This can be a powerful force in combating the rubbish our kids are fed both literally and metaphorically.

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