The fault that children eat so badly, is it their parents?

To affirm that children take too much sugar does not surprise, unfortunately, to anyone. Without going any further, Dr. María Morales-Suarez-Varela and her collaborators have just published in the journal Nutrients (February 2020) a study that has found that Spanish children from 6 to 8 years they take a very high amount of free sugars (which we should not confuse with the sugars of whole fruits, called “intrinsic sugars”). Thus, while the World Health Organization (WHO) considers that the consumption of sugar in children is optional (it is not necessary to take sugar) and that the ideal is that said consumption does not exceed 5% of the total caloric intake, the children in the study consumed on average 94 grams of sugar per day, which represents a caloric intake from sugar that ranges between and 25% of total energy consumption. That is, about five times higher than recommended by the WHO. It is, without a doubt, a habit with dire consequences for the physical and mental health of these children in the short, medium and, above all, long term. In the words of Morales-Suárez-Varela and his team, eating less sugar could reduce the percentage of fat in the body, which would reduce the risk of suffering from chronic diseases related to diet.

What has been said for sugar it is entirely applicable to salt. More than 80% of Spanish schoolchildren consume an excessive amount of salt, according to research published in 2017 by Dr. Aránzazu Aparicio and her collaborators in the European Journal of Nutrition. It is something that, again, increases your risk of long-term cardiovascular disease.

Sugar consumption in children is about five times higher than as recommended by the WHO

It would be logical to think that these researchers advocated dietetic-nutritional education both for children and, above all, for parents. However, in the conclusion of the work by Aparicio et al. We read the following: “Reducing the sodium content in children’s diets is a good policy to reduce cardiovascular risk.” There is no doubt that education is important, but it is even more important to have good policies that protect consumers from factors that contribute to making wrong decisions.

Among these factors we must compute the Huge supply of unhealthy food, which surrounds children like water surrounds a fish. A large part of the catalog of foods directed or advertised to children corresponds to inappropriate profiles. It is shown by a work recently published in the Journal of Primary Care Pediatrics and coordinated by the lawyer Francisco José Ojuelos, expert in food law and author of the book “ The right to nutrition ”. In this article, entitled “Parental freedom as a barrier against the advertising of unhealthy food products aimed at children,” it is justified that minors are not capable of judging advertising messages and that marketing directed at them worsens their eating behavior . It is also insisted that the advertising of unhealthy (not innocuous) products should not be directed at children, especially when they are falsely presented as healthy, on many occasions with misleading health claims or with endorsements from famous people or admired by children, such as athletes or youtubers.

Minors are not capable of judging advertising messages and marketing directed at them worsens their eating behavior, so advertising of unhealthy products should not be directed to children

Given the four previous facts (minors eat poorly, the catalog of products offered to them is largely measure, unhealthy, advertising is misleading and minors are not able to protect themselves) it seems that we have to devise a solution. What the unhealthy food industry proposes is that parents protect them, deciding what can and cannot be bought. This must be done in order to achieve a “balanced” diet, that is, a diet in which parents determine their caloric (and nutrient) intake and discount their children’s caloric expenditure. An impossible task for tightrope walkers. Because, do parents have sufficient knowledge of nutrition? Do they have a real capacity to contrast the devastating effect of the so-called “predatory marketing”? Are they free to choose or not to feed their children correctly? Or, in other words, can we hold parents responsible for the poor diet of their children? This new research shows that parents do not have enough nutritional or health knowledge to make healthy choices when choosing food for their children. As an example, in a scientific study 96% of the volunteers (a relatively well-informed public) were unable to recognize added sugars by reading the label.

There are many more references in the article of the Journal of Primary Care Pediatrics , such as the one relating to the fact that that advertising undermines, on too many occasions, the exercise of parental authority. It does so, for example, when instead of (or in addition to) praising its products, it fosters in minors an unthinking resistance to parental guardianship. We find examples in the phrases “you decide”, “live as you want”, “there are no orders” or “mark your territory”.

We are before a cocktail explosive: unbalanced diet, a huge supply of unhealthy products, predatory marketing and little nutritional knowledge on the part of parents

We are, therefore, before an explosive cocktail . We have seen some of its ingredients: unbalanced diet in childhood, a huge supply of unhealthy products, predatory marketing, the inability of minors to protect themselves and little nutritional knowledge on the part of parents. But there are more explosive substances in that cocktail: the administrations do not help (they handle obsolete concepts), neither the courts (they have two different concepts of consumer: one that is attentive and insightful, when it comes to protecting consumers themselves, and another more absentminded, when it comes to protecting commercial interests) and, finally, food advertising standards, despite being made by the industry itself (can you imagine making its standards?), are massively violated. Regarding this last explosive substance, Ojuelos indicates that the Spanish self-regulation code (PAOS) ​​presented a degree of non-compliance of 49, 3% in 2008. Well, the latest study in this regard, coordinated by Félix Alexis Morales and focused on the children’s television channel Boing, found a much higher non-compliance: a 73, 9%. Desolate.

Faced with this explosive cocktail for public health that we have just described, there are, fortunately, solutions. They should not serve to exempt us from reinforcing our vigilance as parents, but they must be known. Among the measures that have shown efficacy to improve the diet of the population, in the article of the Journal of Primary Care Pediatrics we find the prohibition of advertising of unhealthy foods directed at children, taxes on unhealthy foods or the use of labels that clearly show that we are dealing with an inadvisable product. An example of the latter is the Chilean food presentation system. Through clear labels, this system reveals the unhealthy nature of certain products and motivates changes in consumer behavior, who consider health a very relevant factor. Regarding taxes, we have the example of Catalonia. According to a recent study coordinated by Judit Vall Castelló, the tax on sugary drinks (misnamed “soft drinks” or “refreshing drinks”) has resulted in a 7.7% reduction in consumption compared to the situation before the tax, being the most pronounced reduction in the regions with the highest rates of obesity, that is, where it is most necessary.

In sum, if parents choose to travel poorly marked paths when making decisions regarding feeding your kids, and they end up disoriented, it’s not your fault. The time has come to focus elsewhere.

Julio Basulto ( @ JulioBasulto_DN ) is a Dietitian-Nutritionist who tries to convince the world that eating poorly is not compensated by a carrot. He also gives conferences, works as a teacher in various academic institutions, collaborates with different media and is the author of numerous scientific and informative publications ( www.juliobasulto .com).

NOURISH WITH SCIENCE is a section on diet based on scientific evidence and knowledge verified by specialists. Eating is much more than a pleasure and a necessity: diet and eating habits are right now the public health factor that can help us the most to prevent many diseases, from many types of cancer to diabetes. A team of dietitians-nutritionists will help us to better understand the importance of food and to demolish, thanks to science, the myths that lead us to eat badly.

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