I’ve written a few times about childhood obesity including how obese 2 year olds at risk of heart disease, how childhood obesity has been linked to increased cancer risk and how playing only one sport is not enough to cut teen obesity.
Today, The Guardian features an article about how healthy eating starts at home, as children in France learn, but the state has a role in creating a positive food culture for kids.
“To what degree are parents responsible for rapidly rising rates of child overweight and obesity? Are parents of severely obese children guilty of child abuse? These questions are raised in this week’s BBC Radio 4 Report, which discusses cases where morbid obesity has prompted local authorities to take children into care.
Comparing Britain with France sheds interesting light on this question of parental responsibility. British children are twice as likely as French children to be overweight or obese. Indeed, France has one of the lowest rates of overweight children in the developed world, and Britain one of the highest. Are British parents to blame?
The answer is complicated, because the causes of obesity are complex: physical activity, poverty, “food deserts”, genetics and obesogenic chemicals all play a role. But what our children eat is undoubtedly a factor, particularly in terms of what scientists term a “positive energy balance”: too many calories in and too few out.
This is where parenting styles – and food culture – are relevant. It’s no coincidence that random snacking (or “grazing”) is traditionally frowned upon in France. The majority of French children snack only once a day at the late-afternoon goûter, and otherwise are expected to wait patiently until their next meal – which they generally do, having been taught to know the difference between having an empty stomach and truly feeling hungry.
French parents teach their children to listen to their own hunger cues and to limit portion sizes. Parents will ask, “Are you still feeling hungry?” rather than, “Are you full?” – a subtle but important distinction. Traditional long, slow meals (most schools have a two-hour lunch break) also helps children learn to listen to their own “fullness feelings”, as satiety signals take more than 20 minutes to reach our brains from our stomachs. The paradox: just like their parents, French children spend a longer time eating than ours, but eat less.
And that’s not all: they eat more veggies, but appear to enjoy it more. Studies have shown that French mothers introduce a far greater diversity of foods to infants (paediatricians recommend leek soup for infants!). The proof is in French school lunches, which feature foods such as beetroot salad and butter beans, grated carrot salad and cauliflower casserole, endive and even escargots.
This suggests that French parents can’t claim all the credit. Healthy eating is included in the school curriculum: “tasting week” classes introduce children to new foods. Lunch menus (following ministry of education regulations) can’t include the same dish more than once a month, so that children are exposed to variety. Most school lunch desserts are simply fresh fruit, children drink water (no sweetened drinks are available, and vending machines are banned in all schools), fried foods are served only a few times a month, and ketchup is allowed a maximum of once a week – and only with foods with which it is traditionally eaten.
Why all of these rules? The French believe that teaching children to eat is as important as teaching them to read. In fact, eating well is one of the first skills that parents teach children, from weaning onwards.
They believe that healthy eating starts at home. But they also believe that even well-intentioned parents find it difficult to counteract food marketing, poor quality school lunches, and a “grab and go” food culture in which snacking is increasingly the norm. This is why France has a “soda tax” on soft drinks, and why television advertisements for snack foods carry a warning: “For your health, avoid snacking in between meals.” Sounds silly? The French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec is the only jurisdiction to have banned TV food marketing to children, and it has the lowest rates of child obesity in North America.
The French example suggests we should acknowledge parental responsibility for creating a family food culture in which children are taught – and enabled – to eat healthily. This is true for all of us, not only in cases of morbid obesity (which can be as life-threatening as under-nutrition and which, in my opinion, might justifiably be considered child abuse in some instances).
But many aspects of our unhealthy food culture are beyond the control of individual parents. Many of these are profit-driven, supported by corporate lobbies that have little interest in children consuming less food, or fewer processed foods – which is precisely what they should be doing. In response, we need changes to the school curriculum and school lunches, controls on food marketing, higher nutritional standards for foods targeted at children, and state intervention to ensure accessibility of healthy foods – rather than cheap, calorie-rich, but nutrient-poor foods – for those living in poverty. These actions are beyond the scope of individual parents but without them, the child obesity epidemic will continue.
Year Without Beer
Never mind the Olympics, 2012 is my Year Without Beer! I am spending all 366 days of this leap year alcohol free in an attempt to raise money for 2 charities that are both very close to my heart.
If giving up all alcohol for a year isn’t enough of a challenge to make you dig deep and show your support, I also plan to run 500 miles! As part of my running challenge I am signed up to run a quarter marathon, 10 mile road race (Great South Run) and 8 mile off road challenge (The Grim Original).
If you want to show some love them please donate to my year without beer and give your support to one of these fantastic causes:
- To donate to Cancer Research UK please click here to visit my just giving page or donate by text – send AYWB66 and the amount to 70070. For example, texting “AYWB66 £5″ will donate £5.
- To donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust please click here to visit my just giving page or donate by text – send AYWB55 and the amount to 70070. For example, texting “AYWB55 £5″ will donate £5.