I’m not usually one for “shockumentaries”, but I did watch the recent Junk Food Kids series on Channel 4.
The verdict was fairly unanimous – parents are to blame for childhood obesity and soaring levels of dental decay. A victory for the neoliberal cult of personal responsibility and “poor lifestyle choices”.
Although there was negligence, particularly on the part of the parents who didn’t bother with their kids’ dental hygiene (one mother seemingly couldn’t be bothered to get her child to a dentist or insist on her brushing twice a day, because she’d rather watch Peppa Pig) I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agreed that it was all the parents’ fault.
I’d wager there were a few people sat in their living rooms letting off steam about their taxes having to treat kids with obesity related illnesses and dental decay when the parents seem clueless as to how to rectify the situation. But 61.2 of adults are overweight or obese in the UK now. Not all of those adults will have had negligent parents who fed them the wrong foods or let them eat entire tubs of ice cream before a full roast dinner.
It’s the food, stupid.
Even in healthy foods like fruit and vegetables, modern agricultural methods have led to soil depletion, which means that there are fewer micronutrients in the food we eat. The traditional practices of rotating crops and leaving a “fallow field” every growing season in order to restore the soil is all but gone, because of the demands on farmers to grow extra crops. And that’s just the fruit and veg we eat in their natural state. Add in processing, and there’s even less nutrition left.
Our bodies aren’t daft. What do they do when they’re not getting enough of what they need? They tell us we’re hungry, of course. Our bodies don’t tell us we’re full, even though we’ve got the calories we need, because we haven’t got the nutrients. This is why many obese people are actually malnourished. It may not look that way, but obesity is what happens when the food you eat contains a ton of calories without the nutrition.
This is a particular risk among people on low incomes. The cheapest food in the supermarket is often the most nutritionally deficient – think big value bags of chips and chicken nuggets, burgers, pies, fish fingers. All these things are bulked out with low-cost carbohydrate, usually wheat rusk or breadcrumbs, and there’s not much nutrition or fibre to be found in that.
The younger parents on the show were mostly of the same generation as me, and we didn’t get much education about food or cooking in school. If I hadn’t learnt to cook at home, would I have learned things like how to prepare dried beans and lentils, and to make low-cost meals for when I went to university? Not likely. I’d probably have been a Pot Noodle-head.
As well as being cheap, all these processed foods TASTE GOOD. They taste good despite some of them being made from some pretty grim stuff, as Jamie Oliver (not my favourite TV chef due to high irritation levels, but makes many salient points on this topic) explains:
How do you make something pretty horrible taste good? Add fat, sugar and salt. Bingo.
It’s not just because we’re eating too much food in general. We’re eating too much food that kind of isn’t food, really. As Michael Pollan said in his book In Defense of Food – “don’t eat anything your great-grandma wouldn’t recognise as food“.
He might be bang on the money, but for people on low incomes, it’s not quite that simple, because the price of the fresh produce that was the staple of our great grandparents’ diets is out of reach of many low-income families today. And don’t get me started on silly health food crazes and health food preachers – telling a person struggling to make ends meet and coming home exhausted after the night shift that they should be spending their energy trying to get kale and wheatgrass smoothies down their kids for breakfast is probably going to get you smacked round the face, and rightly so.
We need to look at our priorities as well. For example, why are ante-natal classes only focused on breathing exercises and breastfeeding? Kids need looking after long before they’ve popped out and been weaned – why aren’t we teaching new and expectant parents about things like dental care, nutrition, and avoiding supermarket tantrums? In days gone by, maybe you’d have learned that as a new mum or dad from your parents and older siblings, but these days, you’re not as likely to be living round the corner from them to pop in for a bit of advice.
Then there’s retailers. Recent proposed legislation banning junk food advertising before 9pm is a start, but there’s still a long way to go in persuading retailers that they might just have some social responsibility towards their customers. In the majority of mainstream food shops, there’s still chocolate and sweets at kid-height as you walk to the checkout, for example. You could have done the healthiest shop in the world and it all comes undone as your tired three year old spies the Kinder eggs and throws a tantrum worthy of Naomi Campbell – all you want to do is get out of that store away from the glares of other customers, who understandably dislike the decibel level of a screaming toddler, so yep, you buy the egg.
One final word, though, on this subject – if I learned anything from Junk Food Kids, it’s that good parenting is a whole lot of hard work, and if you’re not prepared to put the hard yards in (like turning Peppa Pig off when it’s “teeth time” and dealing with the ensuing meltdown) then you’d probably be better off not having any.
I think I’ll stick to dogs – dental hygiene is as complicated as chucking him a Dentastick and as long as it tastes vaguely like meat, he’ll eat it!