Parent power - the rise of childhood obesity

Related tags Children Nutrition

The lifestyles of today's parents, which has created the booming
market for unhealthy convenience foods, are partly to blame for the
rise in childhood obesity, suggests a new report. But a backlash
against junk food and the food industry in general looks set to
trigger demand for healthier foods for our children.

Some 30 per cent of British five- to nine-year-olds are overweight or obese and this is expected to rise to 36 per cent by 2008, shows the Datamonitor​ report. Italy currently has a higher number of overweight children than the US, although the US leads in obesity figures. By 2008 however, the UK, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands will have almost caught up with the rate of obese children in the US (16 per cent).

"There are numerous factors contributing to this worrying phenomenon, ranging from children's increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the Americanisation of the traditional southern European diet, and a decline in family meal occasions,"​ said consumer markets analyst and author of the report Daniel Bone.

"The increasingly hectic nature of parental lifestyles means that convenient, but often unhealthy food options have been chosen at the expense of more time-consuming, nutritious alternatives."

Longer working hours, an increase in the number of working women, and a need for exhausted parents to have 'quality time' together means that more children, especially those in the UK and US, are losing a sense of the 'family eating together' concept. This fragmentation of family eating has resulted in a significant growth in 'child-only meals' where child-specific foods or child-specific preferences such as chips and pizza are predominant.

A survey of more than 6000 consumers found that just one-third eat as a family, a huge contrast compared to 82 per cent of adults who said that when they were children they ate as a family everyday. This links to obesity, since research shows eating with the family leads to healthier eating habits for children.

"Children who eat with their families are more likely to consume fruit and vegetables, and to eat less saturated fat, fried food and soda,"​ noted Bone.

A growing 'bedroom culture', whereby children are increasingly becoming media junkies and spending time in their bedrooms, also increases the portion of sedentary time and snacking away from the kitchen. The number of daily children's snacking occasions is also increasing, while the number of core mealtime occasions, (breakfast, lunch and dinner) are in decline.

"This is really quite worrying. Rising obesity levels have led to a trend in eating-related diseases for children, with more cases of high cholesterol and diabetes being reported in contemporary children than any other generation,"​ Bone explains.

Obesity has also been shown as a significant risk factor for coughing and wheezing in children. The consequences of this epidemic have been widely reported, with the UK government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, recently claiming that 1 million fewer obese people would lead to 15,000 fewer heart disease cases, 34,000 fewer people with type 2 diabetes and 99,000 fewer with high blood pressure.

Changing parental attitudes suggest there may however be a backlash occurring among contemporary parents, aware of the problem. There is also growing awareness of the potential dangers of the snack and junk food culture, with recent lawsuits, government reports, and 'activist' activities making parents more sensitive to family nutrition and the new reality (and risks) of the early onset of diabetes and coronary heart disease among obese children.

"There is evidence that parents are now placing greater importance on health as opposed to convenience when making purchase decisions. However, there is a major problem since parents have grown to distrust the food industry and feel that they are lacking vital information when making purchases,"​ says Bone.

Households at risk of obesity reveal significant socio-economic effects, with research showing that, on average, a third of children from lower-income households are obese, compared to a fifth of children from higher-income households. Therefore, any attempts to bridge the knowledge gap must be specifically directed at such individuals.

"This point in time represents a critical period in which marketers must change their approach. Adopting an ethical and responsible ethos to all aspects of children's marketing, ranging from developing healthy product offerings to promoting active and healthy lifestyles can have a positive impact on society. It makes sense from both a social and profit point of view,"​ concludes Bone.

See here​ for more information on the report, 'Children's consumption occasions and behaviours'.

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