Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pack it in

'The pack-a-day habit threatening our kids' health,' intones the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to promote its Food4Thought campaign. According to the BHF, eating one pack of crisps per day will lead children to consume almost five litres of cooking oil in the course of a year. Their press release notes that half of British schoolchildren 'admit' to eating a pack of crisps everyday while almost one-in-five eat two packs or more. Other nutritional shockers include the finding that three quarters of mothers feed their children ready meals or takeaways more than three times a week and only 13 per cent of boys and 12 per cent of girls reported eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

This campaign is as heavily laden with spin as the crisps are with oil. The reference to consuming a 'pack-a-day' has a strong whiff of cigarettes about it. Since in the popular imagination, 'cigarettes=death', the implication is that eating so many crisps will have a similar impact. Yet, while the picture of a little girl pouring a gallon container of oil down her throat looks repulsive, the comparison is no less grotesque.

Oil is a perfectly normal and healthy part of the diet. Eating nothing but crisps would be quite likely to produce a greasy and rather anaemic looking child, but as long as there is some variety in children's diets (and not just between cheese and onion and smokey bacon), there shouldn't be a problem.

Another way of putting that 'almost five litres of oil' figure would be that children consume about two-and-a-half teaspoons of oil per pack. In energy terms, the oil contributes about 100 calories. Not exactly devastating. But the ruse of adding up a year's consumption is ludicrous. For example, if a child drinks a litre of water per day, that means they consume 365 litres per year - enough to fill four baths. If they attempted to drink all of it at once they'd certainly drown. Yet no-one is suggesting that drinking water is bad for you.

There is no such thing as 'bad' foods, only bad diets. Even then, the link between eating fat and ill-health has never been backed up by the evidence. When major studies have been conducted into the effect of changing diet to a low-fat or low saturated fat intake, the results have been extremely disappointing for those seeking to establish such a link. Rather than targeting health campaigns at children which cause unnecessary worry, finding the root causes of heart disease and better ways to treat it more effectively would be the right path to take. Unlike our children's diets, it's always proven to be more fruitful.

The pack-a-day habit threatening our Kids' health, British Heart Foundation, 22 September 2006