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Our Children's Eating Habits Might Not Seem Troublesome On The Surface, But They're A Ticking Timebomb

13/12/2016 08:01
Dwight Eschliman via Getty Images

Hands up: who often takes the kids out for a burger and fries when you're out for the day shopping? After all, it's cheap, filling and they've been on about the latest free toy.

Had a long debate with a toddler in the supermarket about why you're not going to buy that box of sugary flakes just because of the princess character on the front?

Tried to explain to a teenager why a £1 box of fried chicken and chips on the way home from school isn't the best way to snack?

Felt guilty about giving in to the moaning and whining for a bar of chocolate or a bag of crisps?
Fumed when a well-meaning friend's given your six-year old free rein with the biscuit tin "because he asked so nicely"?

So far, so normal.

And that's the point of our first State of the Nation report on children's food. It isn't a paper about extremes. It's a snapshot of how millions of children are eating in 2016, day in, day out, and the challenges facing parents up and down the country because of the food environment we now live in. Those challenges have become our norm. As parents and grandparents, raising our kids and grandkids with pester power and less healthy food at every turn is just the reality.

When we asked thousands of parents: 'Does your child have too much sugar as part of their everyday diet?', they answered 'yes' for 50% of children. Cutting down on the sweets and chocolates and cakes and biscuits they buy, getting rid of sugary squash in the house and buying different breakfast cereals were the steps most parents wanted to take to cut down the amount of sugar their child has.

But when asked why they hadn't already made those changes, more than one quarter of parents who wanted to take action said they were habits which are hard to change and almost one in five said their child would complain too much.

More than one third of parents (36%) told us their children pester for products like sweets, chocolate, ice cream, crisps, fast food, and sugary soft drinks at least once a day, and it's most likely to happen at the supermarket or while watching TV.   

Crucially, around four out of ten parents said it's difficult or very difficult to say no when their child is pestering for these sorts of foods.  

We're well aware of these pressures, as parents. I think many of us want this to change. But at the end of a long working week with a grumpy child in tow, who hasn't given in to the vending machine full of confectionary at the sports centre after football club?

In fact, the reality is that the way many children eat isn't serving their health all that well at all. With the latest National Child Measurement Programme data telling us that even more children are overweight or obese by the time they start school, Type II diabetes appearing in younger children than ever before and tooth decay putting children into hospital for general anaesthetic, we need to create a new norm. The habits that our food environment is pushing us to build with our children might not seem all that troublesome on the surface, but they're a ticking timebomb for health: the sweets after school as a reward for being good, the convenient but not-so-healthy lunchbox snacks that we give in to just because the other kids get them, the linking of events which give us cause for celebration and joy with the foods and drinks that are often worst for our bodies.

In a year in which government published a childhood obesity action plan and announced its intention to begin taxing sugary soft drinks to encourage reformulation and smaller portion sizes, we might have expected to close the year on an optimistic note for children's nutrition. However, the measures announced this year will not go anywhere near far enough to tackle the issues facing the malnourished middle. Government policy remains patchy. In this State of the Nation report, parents and children themselves tell us what's making it difficult for children to eat better. I hope 2017 will be a year in which policymakers begin listen to them.

Linda Cregan is CEO of the Children's Food Trust

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