Wednesday 9 July 2014

Why Do We Feed Our Kids Crap?

How to wear a healthy diet
If you have spent the last 30 years living the life of an agoraphobic hermit with an allergy to newspaper ink and a deep mistrust of the internet you might, just might, have missed the news that the UK is in the middle of an obesity crisis that is now affecting our children.

Oddly enough this news doesn’t seem to have had much effect on how we view kids and food. I found a terrific example of this on a website that listed ways in which you could entice your child to eat more vegetables. It had all sorts of odd ball ideas but the one that really caught my eye was their suggestion for enticing your child to eat broccoli; dip it into sugar sprinkles first!

I kid you not! Apparently the author is convinced that most children will come away from this experience thinking, “umm broccoli is nice, shame it had so much sugar on it, I’ll try it on its own next time”, and not, “Sugar! I LOVE sugar!... Shame it had that green shit stuck to it!”

A classic example of children and culinary inertia are the kids menus at most of these so called “Family Friendly” restaurants. I’m sure the chefs in these places are still wearing flares because little seems to have changed since the 70’s. Pretty much the entire menu revolves around the theory that if you coat something in breadcrumbs or batter and then deep fry it, kids will eat it. As a fop to the governments 5-a-day campaign - and to add a bit of colour to a plate that would otherwise be various shades of brown - they now scatter a handful of peas over it and, just to ensure that your child can barely walk afterwards, they finish it all off with a desert that is roughly the size of the kid eating it.

Worse still – in my opinion at least – is the eagerness with which some parents get their children hooked on soft drinks. I’ve seen kids that have barely started weaning sucking ‘juice’ out of a bottle. And you know what’s most odd about this? The fact that the majority of us don’t think there’s anything really wrong with this!

Our children are going to grow up in a world where they will be constantly subjected to temptation, constantly encouraged to take on far more calories than they really need. Yet they are often raised with the idea that in order to quench their thirst they have to consume sugar.

The poor beggars don’t have a hope in hell! Every time they feel thirsty they’re going to reach for a sugar drink, because that’s what they associate thirst with. So instead of satisfying this base need with the zero calorie liquid their body actually craves, they’re loading up with hundreds of excess, empty, calories.

I’d say I was shocked at how sanguine people are about sugar if it wasn’t for the manner in which the “sugar” debate has taken place. It’s astonishing just how aggressive an industry this is; every time a scientist has dared to suggest that sugar might not actually be that good for you, the big sugar companies have hit back with everything from sugar sponsored pseudo-science, to out and out character assassination. In short, there is nothing sweet about the sugar industry.

To prove the point I will make you a bet; following the recent spate of media articles on the dangers of sugar there will, within the next 3 months, be a barrage of counter arguments run in almost every national newspaper, questioning the veracity of the earlier claims – without offering any solid scientific argument against them - and suggesting serious character flaws in the scientists making those earlier claims.

This will then be followed by one of those articles that comes out every few months anyway, in which a 98 year old climbs mount Everest whilst carrying a Sherpa, kills a tiger with his bare hands and then goes on to win Mastermind. When asked, he will then put it all down to his diet of refined sugar, whiskey and Havana cigars.

I for one don’t really care about the debate itself. I think it’s quite clear that sugar, especially sugary drinks, are best taken in moderation, so Marty is being brought up with the notion that if you are thirsty you drink good old fashioned water and if you think you’re going to get sweets two days on the trot, think again.

I’m working on the theory that there are enormous corporations out there willing to spend billions to tempt Marty and his mates into drinking lots of sweet, fizzy, drinks and heaps of fat laden food. It doesn’t really bother me that they don’t give a flying fuck about the health of my boy - I don’t give a great deal for them either - but I’m certainly not going to help them in their quest to boost their profits at the expense of my sons health.

Sadly, I still seem to be in a bit of a minority on all of this. I guess part of the reason is that parenting habits change very slowly; what worked for your parents and for you will work for your children. My mother was raised during WWII when rationing was all the rage. As a result she, and her mother, looked upon sugar rich and fatty food as a treat for her kids. The next generation maintains that approach but because those foods are so much cheaper and more readily available the ‘treat’ becomes commonplace.

In fact the word ‘treat’ seems to have undergone a transformation. I recall a treat being something that you had once a month or once a week, cake with Sunday lunch for example. These days ‘treats’ seem to be things you dole out on the hour, every hour.

I guess another factor in all of this is that whilst most parents would be a bit worried if their children were overweight, they would be absolutely mortified if their child was deemed malnourished or underweight. As a result most of us are going to opt for a bit too much, rather than a bit too little.

This isn’t helped by the fact that ‘normal’ is now far heavier than it used to be. If you are comparing your child to his friends you will no doubt be comforted by the fact that he’s about the same weight as all his mates. Sadly, there’s a very high chance that the entire group is heavier than they should be. Yes, he or she is ‘normal’ but that doesn’t mean they are a healthy weight. An easy way to test this is to look at them when you’re getting them ready for bed. Can you see their ribs? If the answer is yes, then they are probably a good weight. If the answer is no then your child is probably overweight and, sadly, if they start off life overweight the odds are that they will struggle with their waistline for the rest of their lives.

Another factor is just general ignorance and complacency. Many parents are themselves overweight and just don’t view it as a problem. Many more parents are just unaware of some of the issues. A perfect example of this is our attitude to ‘fruit juice’ particularly those juices aimed directly at children.

If you listen to the advertising you could be forgiven for thinking that these fruit juices are great things, after all they are chocked full of vitamins and they contain real fruit, often with no added sugar! What can possibly be wrong? Well, sadly, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.

The biggest issue is that these vitamins are floating in a sea of sugar. Yes, it’s natural fructose but it’s still sugar and there is an enormous amount of it. To drink one of these drinks for the vitamins is like drinking Malt Whiskey for the pure mountain spring water it’s allegedly made from.

The second point is that if you want to consume fruit, eat one! Drinking a fruit isn’t that good for you for two reasons, firstly when you smash a fruit up and extract the juice you’re really just making flavoured sugar water. Secondly, whilst there’s no more sugar in the juice than there is in the fruit – assuming you didn’t buy one of those drinks where they do actually add yet more sugar – you are going to drink far more than just one fruit.

For example, in a typical glass of freshly squeezed orange juice there are about four oranges. Yet, whilst you could quite easily drink two glasses of juice, it’s highly unlikely that you could eat eight oranges in a single sitting. In other words, by drinking the fruit you are taking on board 4 times the amount of sugar than you would if you just sat down and ate it. You will also still be hungry and will have missed out on a lot of fibre.

But aren’t we all supposed to be eating 5 fruit and vegetables a day? Yes, we are but the key word is “eat”. Drinking eight oranges does not mean you’ve just whipped your 5-a-day target because the high sugar content is doing you more harm than the vitamins are doing you good. As a result most fruit juices only count as one portion in the 5-a-day regime, regardless of how much you drink.

The manufacturers are all perfectly aware of this of course but it doesn’t stop them trying to persuade you that their products are good for your children, even when they know that’s almost certainly not the case. Have a look at the labelling on kiddies fruit juice next time you buy some. Many will contain a phrase that is something along the lines of “Forms part of your 5-a-day” and have a logo that looks a bit like the 5-a-day logo but isn’t quite right. This is because they aren’t allowed to use the real logo and wording because they contain far too much sugar.

Another con that far too many of us fall for are these ‘energy drinks’. If I take a walk around my local football pitch after the youth teams have been playing, the ground is littered with the tops of these energy drinks. Here we have a field full of litter louts, running around like crazy and all leaving the pitch slightly fatter than when they went on because they have just consumed the best part of 500 calories – assuming they had a bottle at half time and one at the end of the match. And why did they drink this nonsense? Because they and their parents have been told that in order to achieve their sporting best they need to consume a shed load of sugar and salt. Which would be fair enough if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s complete and utter bollocks!

The only people who get any genuine benefit from these drinks are those few elite athletes who really are pushing their bodies to the limit. For the other 99.99% of us it’s like pouring nitro-glycerine into a lawnmower – you might start off believing you now own a super mower but all you’ll end up with is a scorched lawn with a myriad of 2-stroke engine parts embedded in it.

So, in a rather large nutshell, that’s why Marty doesn’t drink juice or soft drinks. We’re not fanatical about it, after all sugar and fat are fine in moderation, but I think it’s important that he grows up with the idea that water is the best way of quenching thirst. I also hope he grows up with a very sceptical view of the food and drink industry, an industry that seems to have mislaid its moral compass... always assuming it had one in the first place.