Are parents behind the fat kids?

There has been much heart-searching about the rise in child obesity. But it seems that everyone is secretly blaming the parents – and schools, and food companies…

As summer approached, pictures of fat children and even fatter adults adorned page after page of the tabloid press. Just as our larger-than-life American cousins have had to confront obesity, we are told that more and more of the UK population is now being classed as obese and the problem, often starting in childhood, is getting worse.

The fast-food generation eat junk food all day, take little or no exercise and, so the received wisdom has it, are part of a coronary time-bomb that will cause the future meltdown of the NHS.

The typical tabloid stance has suggested that the overweight children are fairly passive victims of marketing when it comes to eating habits, and “do not know any better”, but The Great Health Debate, a recent study conducted by internet-based research company BrainJuicer, reveals that this is not entirely the case.

The results of the study show that there is considerable agreement between mothers and children about which foods are healthy. In fact, concern about family members’ eating habits flows both ways, with mothers most concerned about their children’s intake of fat and sugar, and children equally concerned about their parents’ alcohol consumption.

The fact that parents are worried about unhealthy additives and chemicals in everyday foods tells us little that we did not already know, but the children who were surveyed add some interesting insights. For instance, many children themselves believe that they are eating too many fatty foods, and they also point out that people need to exercise or they will get fat. This suggests that the obesity issue is less about health education than it is about putting theory into practice. A second BrainJuicer study, Child Obesity – Blame, Responsibility and Improvement, obtained the views of more than 3,000 respondents, 40 per cent of whom were parents of school-age children.

When asked who they perceive is to blame for the rising levels of obesity, parents, fast-food restaurants, food manufacturers and television were the factors most frequently named by respondents. The thinking seems to be that parents are lazy when it comes to cooking: they need to set a healthy-eating example for their children, but long working hours can often result in an over-reliance on convenience foods. This is compounded by the fact that fresh food often appears to cost more than ready-meals, and by excessive advertising of unhealthy products aimed at children.

When it comes to who is responsible for improving the situation, parents again top the table, according to 82 per cent of respondents. They are followed by food manufacturers, schools, fast-food restaurants and TV. Parents are regarded as both teachers and providers, but when buying food they are seen to be at the mercy of manufacturers, which should reduce high levels of sugar, fat and salt and stop marketing aggressively at vulnerable targets. There is a growing feeling that the Government should step in if action is not forthcoming from food manufacturers, which often seem to sidestep the issue by blaming a decline in exercise levels for the rise in obesity.

Schools are often blamed for children’s excess fat, with many respondents believing that they need to provide better health education and that they should do more to promote healthy food at lunchtimes. There have even been calls for a ban on the sale of junk food in canteens and tuck shops. Many critics of schools point to a perceived decline in the level of physical education and exercise and there are suggestions, including one from the Commons Health Select Committee, that the number of hours devoted to physical activity should be increased.

The survey methodology allowed respondents to discuss and rate a large number of ideas. The most popular involved a shake-up of the food industry, requiring a reduction in the use of fat, sugar and salt in food, particularly in products aimed at children.

Other popular suggestions centred on making healthier foods more attractive to children, or reducing the price of such foods so parents would be keener to buy them. Modifications to product promotion and marketing also featured prominently, and the promotion of healthy exercise was often mentioned. “How about offering skipping ropes or hopscotch layouts, rather than plastic toys, as free gifts with burgers?” was one suggestion.

The two studies show that obesity and health problems are well understood by parents and children alike. Mothers believe they know what food is good for their children. Children, too, know what is good for them – but they also know they prefer the taste of foods that are not healthy.

Parents are quick to blame themselves for the child obesity problem, and admit that it is ultimately their responsibility to improve matters. However, the food manufacturers are perceived to be just behind them in terms of blame, through a combination of selling and promoting unhealthy foods, and not being seen to provide affordable healthy options that appeal to children.

From consumer suggestions on how to improve the situation, it seems the food manufacturers could do themselves and their consumers a lot of good by genuinely promoting and supporting exercise as a healthy counterweight to our ever-increasing appetites.

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