Children no longer seeing junk food as a ‘treat’. Why not?

I think they’d be few people who will not have noticed that children’s diets have deteriorated significantly over the last few decades. More and more, it seems, children are eating less real food, and way more rubbish stuff such as processed foods high in refined sugar, processed fats and other unwanted additives including salt, colourings, flavourings and artificial sweeteners. I read this week that the British Heart Foundation in the UK has recently conducted a poll in which children were quizzed on their attitude to food. Apparently, more than four out of five of them did not regard crisps as anything special, and more than half did not consider sweets to be a ‘treat’. The idea here is that our children’s diets have become so pervaded with rubbish food that this food is now considered the norm.

As a result, the a spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation has claimed that the marketing of junk food to children is at the root of these problems, and there has been renewed calls for the laws to be tightened in this area. Much that I’d like to blame the aggressive marketing and promotion of nutritionally suspect foods for the problems children are having with their diets, it seems to me that only part of the problem lies with the food manufacturers.

My belief is that one of the reasons children do not see foods like crisps and confectionery as a treat is not only because these foods have become commonplace in the diet, but also because children are not given consistent and honest messages about the essentially unhealthy nature of these foods.

When talking to parents about how to handle the feeding of their children, I’m often asked something like: Is it OK for my child to eat junk from time to time?� Generally speaking, I believe the answer to this question is yes”. However, I usually add a caveat to this piece of advice which goes along the lines of: If you feed your child junk food just make sure you tell them that’s what it is – junk food.�

The rationale behind this advice is that eating junk food is one thing, not even knowing that it’s junk food is another. I actually see the latter as a far more corrosive factor in the long term. The fact of the matter is many children have little or no idea just how unhealthy some foods are because they are not given consistent messages about these foods. Children have the potential to be overwhelmed by marketing and advertising that positions food in a way that makes them attractive. You wouldn’t expect such messages to tell children the truth about these foods would you?

The people that have the most potential to act as a counterbalance to the marketing and misinformation that pervades nutrition are generally the parents. And I recommend that parents grasp the nettle here and give it straight to their kids. So, if you’re a parent, imagine you’re about to take your child (as a treat) to a fast food joint. Some parents will feel a bit uneasy about this on some level, but will rationalise that occasional indiscretions of this nature are unlikely to harm their child. This is almost certainly correct. But instead of quashing any feeling of uneasiness, I recommend expressing your feelings of unease. So, before even getting into the fast food joint you might contemplate saying something to your child like: We’re off to xxxxxxxxxxx for a treat. The reason why this is a treat and we don’t go to this place often is because the food they serve there is rubbishy and unhealthy. It’s OK to eat it once in a while, but a lot of this food is the sort of thing that can make us sick, so we don’t want to eat too much of it.�

What’s happened here is that while the fast food has not been vetoed (an outright ban can just make kids want something all the more), your child has been told in no uncertain terms your opinion of the food, which has added to their nutritional knowledge and education. I encourage a similar approach when giving a child anything that would generally be regarded as unhealthy, whether that be a crisps, confectionery, fast food, soft drinks or microwaveable lasagne. Use this approach consistently, and your child can never really be in any doubt about the appropriateness of junk food in their diet.

To balance this, you might also want to give your child clear and consistent messages about what is healthy too. This doesn’t have to be a mini-nutrition lecture every time you sit down to a meal, but there’s certainly no harm in mentioning from time to time why, say, you think it’s a good idea for us all to eat some fruit and vegetables.

The end result of all of this is that children can grow up with enormous food and nutrition awareness. This can be a powerful force in combating the rubbish our kids are fed both literally and metaphorically.

10 Responses to Children no longer seeing junk food as a ‘treat’. Why not?

  1. Anna 18 January 2008 at 9:16 pm #

    Just a couple of thoughts that occurred to me while reading this post:

    Why is it that a “treat” is fast food or a manufactured industrial junk food (for that matter, why is a treat something edible)? Why do we “reward” our kids (or ourselves) with junk food? In other words why do we tell our kids that garbage is a reward?

    We wouldn’t give them a broken toy as a reward, would we? Why would we give them food that isn’t nutritious and delicious, as a treat or for everyday foods? Why not something of higher quality? If I want to “treat” my child with something that is novel and provides variety, I make it a real food that we don’t have very often, such as a baked cake or homemade ice cream so that at least the flour and sugar offset by eggs and cream or other healthful ingredients. Or we have a meal at a restaurant that actually cooks with real food (which is usually an independent establishment, not a chain). But as much as I think allowing fast food or junk food snacks all the time is a bad trend, I’m not sure that calling them treats is much better. I think we need to set the bar higher for our kids. We are failing them otherwise.

    Which brings me to another thought. Many parents are completely suckered (or have turned off their critical thinking skills) by the food product marketing campaigns. I overhear parents all the time making food decisions that are based on what the marketers have convinced them is “healthy”, but not based on sound nutrition. Currently, most parents (not to mention physicians, nutritionists, and government agencies) are convinced that anything low fat, with “whole grains”, or full of calcium is a healthful food for their children. No matter that it might be processed beyond recognition of real food – full of sugar, colorings, and preservatives. Cold cereals, yogurt, processed cheese and hot dogs/lunchmeat quickly come to mind, as well as packaged baked and fried snacks. When did parents become so weak and spineless? No long ago I overheard a mother give in to her child in the cold cereal aisle, allowing the purchase of a sugary cereal based on a candy bar, saying” at least it has whole grains. I’d rather you have that than a box of cookies.” I think that is outrageous, but it isn’t an uncommon thing for a parent to say anymore. Having a tiny bit of whole grains doesn’t make up for the massive processing and huge load of sugar, nor is it a much better choice than cookies for breakfast. But the marketers have this parent convinced that it is a good choice, that it isn’t worth standing up to their child and making decision that goes against the child’s wishes, and that the cereal “with whole grain” is “part of a balanced breakfast”.

    The marketers may be very slick, but as a parent (I have a 9 yo son, so I am “in the trenches”, too) we cannot be so gullible. We should know that a sugary cereal is not a good choice for breakfast for our child and that our kids will eat real food if that is what we serve in our homes. Kids got by without day-glo yogurt in plastic tubes before and they’ll get by with real yogurt in an actual dish, too. But as parents, we have to make better decisions, do what’s right for our kids, not what we are told is good enough, and be more aware that we are being manipulationed right and left, with our permission.

    At 9 yo, my son has become quite aware of the difference between real food and junk food. There is fake convenience food all around him, except at our table. He grasps that what we eat becomes part of our bodies (“you are what you eat” and even once step further, “you are what you eat eats”)and it makes a difference if it is high quality real food or empty fake food. That doesn’t mean he isn’t seduced by junk food flavors or convenience packaging, but even he can see that a diet of fake food will be detrimental to him in the long run. If he can see this at such a young age, why is it that adults can’t?

  2. Linda 19 January 2008 at 12:25 pm #

    You are sooo right!

    Many parents do not think for them selves any more. Also there is a lot of incorrect rubbish written in mainstream papers and magazines, so they believe what they are doing is right. You have to look a little further to find out about ‘other’ views. I started through reading books, discovering Dr Briffa through The Observer, and also What Doctors Don’t tell You. Most people have never heard of these.

  3. Nina 20 January 2008 at 11:08 am #

    I agree entirely with what you say but there is a large proportion of the population who will feed junk food to their children out of a lack of time because of work and other commitments or circumstances of their lives where they have fallen into such practices and as you say it’s normal. the advice you have given will be welcomed by certain categories of the population but it will be like ‘water off a duck’s back’ in trying to reach the very people for whom junk food diets are normal. Food manufacturers do have a lot to answer for as does the Government. Micheal Lang and Geoff Raynor have some excellent thoughts that you may want to try and locate. Nina

  4. Liz Clarke 20 January 2008 at 1:33 pm #

    Hi Dr Briffa,

    I love what you do and support just about everything you say but …….

    please can you get someone to proof read your writings before they go on the net? I’m consistently put off by typos etc. I know this seems petty but the above article is particularly bad in the first few paragraphs – to the extent that the word “not” is actually missed out in one crucial sentence; not a line you’d want quoted, I would think.

    Sorry to sound so critical – I really am a big fan. Keep up the good work; it’s seriously important.

  5. Dr John Briffa 20 January 2008 at 6:55 pm #

    Hi Liz
    Thanks for alerting me to this – spotted a few howlers and have corrected these. If you see any more, do let me know!

  6. Catherine Hunter 23 January 2008 at 4:11 pm #

    I agree completely with all the comments. I run a Nutrition Workshop for parents and carers but the uptake is scarily low despite advertsising widely and offering a cut of takings to PTAs. I believe it comes down to the fact that 80% people think they eat well but actually do not. I cook with my 5 and 3 year old sons, explaining about the ingredients as we prepare meals, such as soluble fibre, omega 3 etc and yes we do occasionally go to McDonalds but they know full well it is a treat and to be honest its always a waste of money as they leave the food, drink the milk and play with the toy! I despair when people say “junk food” is “cheaper”. I cook every night from proper ingredients, and feed a family of 4 for ALL meals for £60 a week, plus I buy organic.
    How, as a Nutritional Therapist, do I get parents to listen to me???

  7. Hilda 23 January 2008 at 6:51 pm #

    Hi, As another nutritional therapist I can sympathise. The messages out there are so conflicting and I can see why people are confused. The food industry is about profit. The more processed a food is , the more profit.If you look at Sainsbury’s food education leaflets they are all about the food pyramid loaded with carbs. Doctors’ waiting rooms have leaflets of good diet produced by the sugar bureau. No wonder buns are promoted.

    I think young people after about 11 want to be beautiful more than healthy so you can prote this- nice skin, fewer spots, shiny hair, nice figure etc.

    In my opinion after sugar (or maybe before ) the biggest food disaster is veg oil ( not olive). EVERY time I mention it in talks etc. people look amazed when I say it is the biggest change in eating this century and is not a good idea. So last night one guy asked me what he should fry chips in if not veg oil.

    I feel sorry for people and I think the government needs to step in as so much info is produced by people with vested interests. On the other hand, the government just get their info from them anyway (not us). Hilda

  8. Hilda 23 January 2008 at 6:52 pm #

    Oh another guy said his wife was feeding his kids pasta FOR EVERY MEAL!

  9. Pete 25 January 2008 at 12:21 am #

    Why is “microwaveable lasagne” junk food? Is a burger really junk food – should you not eat minced beef? I think some more clarity on what it is that makes food into ‘junk’ is called for.

  10. Dr John Briffa 25 January 2008 at 7:34 am #

    Are you seriously asking why microwaveable lasagne is junk food? And who mentioned burgers (I didn’t). With regard to clarity on what is ‘junk’ food, can I suggest you browse the articles under ‘healthy eating’ and ‘unhealthy eating’ sections. This should provide you with at least a primer in nutrition that should help you make informed dietary choices.

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