THE BLOG

Is What Your Children See on TV Destroying Their Health?

08/07/2014 14:29 BST | Updated 07/09/2014 10:59 BST

IMAGINE you find your children watching a TV programme that portrays smoking, drinking and drug-taking as normal everyday behaviour. What will your reaction be?

A. "Turn that off! I can't believe you're watching something so dangerous for your health. This sort of thing should be banned!"

B. "Carry on watching! I'm a responsible parent and I've brought you up well so I'm sure you won't be tempted."

I'm prepared to bet more of you answered A than B. Even though intellectually we might appreciate that banning things can make them more attractive, it's an instinctive reaction to protect your children from harm - and does anyone doubt that cigarettes, alcohol and crack are harmful?

Now I'd like you to imagine something slightly different. You find your children watching a TV programme that portrays fast food, ready meals and fizzy drinks as normal everyday behaviour. Now what's your reaction - A or B?

This time, I'm prepared to bet it's neither. Because most parents, however responsible and caring, probably don't even recognise that the mountain of hidden sugar our children consume is killing them just as surely as 60 fags a day, binge-drinking or snorting cocaine would.

Recently published research from the University of Limerick said that unhealthy food makes a "startlingly" high number of appearances in children's TV shows. Even though junk-food adverts are restricted during children's TV in the UK a study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood found the shows themselves "skewed" towards unhealthy food.

Researchers found that 48% of food appearances were "unhealthy" such as sweets or chocolate while sugary drinks made up a quarter of all appearances of fluid.

At the Sugar Reduction Summit in London on July 9 two key issues will be debated: Firstly, to what extent is excessive sugar consumption driving the frightening increase in obesity and diabetes that is costing the NHS £5billion a year and rising?

Secondly, what do we do about it? Is it the Government's job to dictate what we eat, do they tax sugar, do they ban sugar-laden colas and energy drinks?

Most health professionals consider the evidence against sugar to be overwhelming, however much the food industry spins to the contrary. Indeed, one speaker at the summit, Professor Robert Lustig of the University of California, has proved that the sweetener fructose plays havoc with the appetite by suppressing the natural hormone leptin, which tells the brain "You've had enough, you can stop eating now."

He explains: "Fructose makes the brain think you're starving, even when you've just eaten. Food manufacturers know the sweeter they make things the more you will buy." The addiction to sweetness is a powerful driving force that is almost impossible to break using willpower or conscious effort.

At Thinking Slimmer we use unconscious influence to retune people's minds to have a new relationship to food and exercise. Our 10 minute recordings (called Slimpods) use various techniques from neuroscience, psychology and NLP to alter the brain's reward system so that the pleasure no longer comes from burgers, chocolate or sugary drinks but from making healthier choices.

We are also able to reverse the leptin suppression caused by fructose by sending a "full" signal through people's neuro-circuits so they eat less and usually leave a little on their plate.

Slimpods are completing six month clinical trials at London's City University and many health professionals are keen to study the results to get a better understanding of the power of influence to nudge people towards healthier behaviour rather than the traditional method of prohibition or taxation.

At ThinkingSlimmer.com we don't tell people what they should not eat or drink. Instead we guide them towards healthy meal choices prepared by leading nutritionist Amanda Ursell, who I'm thrilled has been asked to make an important contribution at the sugar summit.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his team already take an enlightened view on influencing public health. They set great store on the pioneering work of Professor Daniel Kahneman, of Princeton University, Professor Robert Cialdini, of the University of Arizona, and Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein at Chicago University.

The brilliant and compelling research they have all done on the effectiveness of subtle persuasion is doing so much to change attitudes among governments and health bodies worldwide.

Mr Hunt recently ruled out a tax on fizzy drinks because he undoubtedly knows that increasing the price merely penalises consumers rather than influencing them to make healthier choices. Chancellors regularly put up the price of cigarettes and alcohol but we still see smokers huddling in cold, wet doorways and binge-drinkers rolling in the gutter.

I saw a great tweet posted to @sugarsummituk the other day. It said: "Don't tax fizzy drinks. Make the manufacturers put a big bright label on the tins: THIS CAN CONTAINS 7 TEASPOONS OF SUGAR."

Would that make you think twice about the next can of cola you buy for your children?