Killing the kids: Does cheap food cause obesity?

It’s a common household scene: You’ve just picked the kids up from school. You’re knackered from working your ass off all day and they’re running around like headless chickens, crawling up the wall and demanding “what’s for tea?”

You want to give them a healthy, balanced diet. Fish, fresh vegetables and rice. But you know that’s going to go down like a lead balloon. And quite frankly, you can do without the hassle after the day you’ve just had.


Easy street

So you go for the soft option, the far more pleasant episode, which is to grab something quick, easy and kid-friendly from the freezer. Pizza, or chicken nuggets. Micro-chips on the side. Ketchup-a-go-go. And chocolate ice cream for afters.

They’re happy. You’re happy. And that’s great. But what happens when your child starts plumping up at an early age? Do you put it down to ‘puppy fat’ or simply a growth phase they’re going through? Or do you revolutionise your weekly food shop and radically revamp the family’s eating habits?

Fat facts

The facts and figures about child obesity are well-versed. It’s become a weekly column filler for most national newspapers in recent years. And no wonder when you consider some of the findings from the multiple strands of research rattling about:

  • The percentage of children aged 6–11 in the US who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period.
  • Childhood obesity in developed countries has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
  • In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.


Defining the fine lines

Overweight is described as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors. Obesity is having excess body fat.

Quite simply, being overweight or obese is the result of ‘caloric imbalance’. That means too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed. It’s affected by various genetic, behavioural and environmental factors. But how do you control it? And who’s to blame for this crazy escalation in obesity rates?

Charity begins at home

An interesting report out recently highlighted that parents are failing to spot the early signs of obesity in their own kids. You have to wonder why that is. Do they see them as perfect specimens, the untarnished produce of their own loins that could never possibly have any kind of defect? I doubt it. I’d hazard a guess that applies to a very small percentage.

So what is it? Do parents see the signs but not know how to confront it? I’d say a large proportion are in that very predicament. I mean, it’s not easy, right? You don’t want to suggest to your child, who may be going through various growing pains, self-doubts and schooling issues as it is, that they are physically unattractive. That’s the way it will be perceived. The inherent health dangers will be a secondary concern to them – at best.

Fractional health service

Another cause, I would argue, is that there are actually many families out there who don’t have the budget and the lifestyle to create a healthy, balanced family diet.

The counter-argument is that every parent should have the foresight, will and energy to seek out fresh, healthy produce and that such produce is very affordable if you only make the effort to find the right markets and farm shops. I get the first part. I categorically do not concur with the second.

healthy kid

Supermarkets in a lot of regions these days put astronomical prices on good quality, healthy food items and cut their profits on things like booze and sub-standard ready-meals as a loss-leader.

Meal deals

I bought a papaya in Sainsburys the other day. I was astonished at the price. One papaya. £2. Mixed with a few other fruit items and layered in natural yoghurt, that dessert worked out at nearly £3.50 per portion.

At the same time a bag of brilliant green spinach cost me £1.80. If I want nice lean chicken to go with it it’ll set me back nearly £3 a portion. Plus £1 each or more for a few stems of asparagus. Before you know it the main meal is coming in at more than a fiver each. Fruit juice on top of that to wash it down and you’re fast approaching £10 for a decent, organic and succulent evening meal. And it takes time to prepare.

If you’re on a tight budget that’s simply not affordable. So no wonder vast armies of UK households look for bargains and end up with 2-for-1 jumbo-sized bags of chips, big boxes of 30%-free mini sausages and 20-packet sacks of monster munch on special offer.

Turning the corner

The issue is cultural. It’s widespread and reflective of the economic times we live in. It’s easy to blame parents. It’s harder to look within the fabric of our society and the global financial markets that have engendered such poverty in the modern era.

There are signs that we have reached a plateau in child obesity rates. Earlier this year researchers examined trends in child and adolescent rates of overweight and obesity using electronic GP records from 1994 to 2013.

The data shows there was a significant increase in child and adolescent overweight and obesity rates every year during the first decade from 1994 to 2003. But overall, annual rates did not increase significantly during the second decade, 2004 to 2013.

The fact this coincides with an escape from the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis may not be… well, coincidental.

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