Sunday, February 21, 2010

The New Fat Trap

By Jennifer O’Connell

Michelle Obama found herself in hot water recently after she launched a strategy aimed at combating childhood obesity. The US First Lady spoke frankly about her eldest daughter’s weight, controversially revealing that Malia’s body mass index was too high at one point.

Her purpose in doing so wasn’t to humiliate her child for years to come (that’s just the likely side effect); rather, it was to challenge the widespread and - let’s face it - comforting notion that only poor kids get fat.

 “We often simply don't realize that .. our kids could be in danger of becoming obese,” she said, hinting at precisely this middle-class myopia on the issue of obesity.

“We always think that only happens to someone else's kid -- and I was in that position.”

Her remarks made me indignant – and no, not the ones about Malia’s temporary weight gain. The part I found hard to swallow was the blithe suggestion that it’s “easy” to control your children’s diet.

“The changes were so minor,” the American First Lady said. “We did things like limit TV time …we paid more attention to portion size. It was really very minor stuff, but these small changes resulted in some significant improvements.”

I’d like the first lady to come to the supermarket with me and point some of these “easy” solutions out.

If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re a health-conscious, well-informed, middle-class parent. So – here’s a guess - you probably don’t allow your kids to have fizzy drinks; draw the line at MacDonalds; regularly nag them to eat some fruit; buy only wholemeal bread and make sure they get a run outside every day?

Bet you’re feeling pretty smug that you’ve done enough?

Well, don’t be so sure. You may be falling into the new ‘fat trap’, the cosy state of complacency occupied by legions of well-meaning parents, who fool themselves that because their kids eat pasta instead of burgers and juice rather than Coke, they can’t possibly grow up to become part of generation XXL.

MacDonald’s and Coca Cola may be easy targets of blame for our kids’ swelling waistlines, but for many, they’re probably not the main culprits.

So where are we going wrong?

The answer may be staring back at you from the shelves of your larder, and piled high in the dairy compartment of your fridge.

Take the healthy breakfast option you force upon your kids several times a week, Kellogg’s Bran Flakes or All-Bran. According to a recent survey by consumer magazine Which?, one serving of each has as much sugar as a jam doughnut.

The Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Clusters that you reserve as a Saturday treat? They’ll be consuming so much saturfated fat in every mouthful, you may as well give them a Burger King burger for breakfast.

The Rice Krispies you keep as a back-up for days when they won’t eat anything else? One serving contains half a gram of salt, or as much salt as a packet of Walker’s Ready Salted.

Now take a look in your fridge. See the probiotic yoghurt drinks containing the serious-sounding L. Casei Immunitass that you stock up on, confident of its immune-boosting properties?

Same sugar content as Coca Cola. What’s more, a recent study by Reading University found that half the probiotic products tested had no proven health benefits. Some do, however, help combat diarrhea in children – which is probably just as well, with all the sugar they have – despite your best efforts - been consuming.

Those little pots of reassuringly healthy-looking organic fromage frais? Almost all brands contain more than 10g per sugar per 100g - which is classified as "a lot" by the British Food Standards Authority. Glenisk Organic Strawberry Fromage Frais, for example, contains 12.8g of sugar per 100g, which is equivalent to about two teaspoons per carton.

The cartons of fruit juice lined up neatly in the fridge door, boasting “no added sugar”? They may not have any added sugar, but the fruit itself is packed with plenty of it. One can-sized serving of unsweetened organic apple juice contains up to 39g, or ten teaspoons, of sugar - exactly the same as a can of Coke.

Even the juices boasting “added health benefits” don’t always live up to their promise.

Lurking in my fridge is a carton of Marks & Spencer Drink Well Apple and Grape  Juice, which brags a whopping list of healthy-sounding added ingredients that includes lemon, honey, Echinacea and antioxidants vitamins A, C, E and Zinc. Not included, however, is the 32.3 g - or eight teaspoons - of sugar it also manages to pack into every 250ml glass.

The Panorama programme revealed that even the range of ready meals created by childhood dietary guru and puree queen, Annabel Karmel, doesn’t always live up to the strict admonitions in her books about avoiding sugar and salt in toddler diets: her lasagne contains twice as much sugar as an ordinary supermarket kind.

It probably won’t come as a surprise at this point to learn that the consumer magazine Which? found that a single child’s lunchbox could yield the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar. Or even that post-mortems on the bodies of little children who have died in accidents have revealed evidence of vascular disease – a product of a high-salt diet – from the age of four.

Terrifying as the vista all this opens out is – figures from Britain suggest that 60% of children will suffer from heart disease in their lifetime and 40% will die of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure - it’s hard to know what to be done.

Because despite what Michelle Obama would have you believe, it’s not all that easy to make the right choices for your offspring – short of making your own yoghurt, presenting them with home-cooked meals twice a day, and trawling the aisles of your supermarket with a nutritional calculator in hand.

Clearer labelling – especially of foodstuffs marketed at children – is one solution. Better education aimed at parents and children is another.

But despite an obesity taskforce set up five years ago to tackle the problem, little has been done and even less achieved – we haven’t even managed to deliver on the long-promised National Policy on Nutrition.

In the meantime, Irish children are blissfully munching their way towards one of the highest obesity rates in the world. And, yes, that means [itals]your[itals] children.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on February 21, 2010


  1. It does take a great deal of effort to try and avoid the sugar land mines, but it's not impossible. The effort should not just stop with parents; it has to extend to immediate family and friends also.

    Bringing the kids to the supermarket and pointing out the differences in sugar content on cereal boxes is a good idea. As is, showing them the signifigance of labelling and what to look out for.

    Because food is so 'plentiful' there is a tendency to deviate from three meals a day, and be constantly picking or nibbling on stuff that you can do without.

    The fight against those in the sugar/salt delivery business will not be won by any single concerned group and it won't happen overnight. Governments have to confront manufactures the same as way as they would those of any addictive substance.

    There has to be a plan, much the same as the Finnish Government has a 30 year plan to try and eradicate tobacco consumption.

  2. Thanks Gerard. I agree with pretty much everything you've said.

    I consider myself pretty well informed about food and nutrition, but was shocked when I started researching this about how little I actually knew about what's in the products I pick blindly from the supermarket shelves - organic yoghurts and real fruit juices especially. Home-preparing everything seems to be the answer, but even though I work from home, it's hard to find the time.

    Also, with two fussy preschoolers, it's hard to find the inclination...