Friday, September 03, 2004

Unhappy meals

As children return to school after the summer break, the UK government's food watchdog is telling parents to make lunches healthier. 'Lunchboxes still packed with fat, salt and sugar', declares the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in response to its annual survey of lunchbox contents across 28 schools.

The FSA says that 'children are eating double the recommended lunchtime intake of saturated fat and sugar, and up to half their daily recommended salt intake'. FSA nutritionist Sam Church said: 'We all know that what children eat now can have a big impact on their diet and health in the future and that there is nothing wrong with children having the odd snack, but these should be eaten in moderation and as part of a varied and balanced diet.'

The only reason this story is newsworthy is because of the ongoing panic about obesity. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that what we eat as children has a direct connection with later eating habits or weight.

Children are notoriously fussy eaters, refusing to eat anything they don't like. Parents are mostly concerned with making sure that their kids eat enough at lunchtime, as long as there is some goodness in it, on the basis that they can exercise the usual carrot-and-stick discipline at mealtimes in the evening. So what features in a lunchbox isn't necessarily reflective of children's diets as a whole - nor does it make sense to assume that adults will eat the same things they did when they were kids. Adults usually have enough sense to realise that eating a variety of foods is important both for health and pleasure.

But even if all these assumptions were accurate, there is little reason to believe that eating more than a certain level of fat, sugar or salt is in itself harmful. Human beings around the world, and throughout history, have eaten a variety of different foods, in smaller or larger quantities, and thrived. It beggars belief that a little more salt or sugar could be a major health risk, except perhaps for very young children. And there is no clear relationship between obesity in childhood and obesity in later life. Only 30 per cent of fat children will become fat adults - and even then, only the most extremely overweight and unfit are likely to suffer serious health consequences as a result.

In fact, the FSA report itself accepts that any rise in obesity is unlikely to be due to increasing food consumption. 'The most plausible underlying explanation is a fall in energy expenditure due to the explosion in sedentary computer games, hours spent watching television and parental safety concerns resulting in curtailed activity outside of school hours. Added to this is a fall in time devoted to activity within the national curriculum and a four-fold increase in the numbers of children driven to school.' But facts won't be allowed to get in the way of a good panic. Unlike our kids, it seems, this one will run and run.

Lunchboxes still packed with fat, salt and sugar, Food Standards Agency, 1 September 2004

First published on Spiked's Don't panic page.


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