Andrew Vine: A weight of responsibility lies on parents’ shoulders

Junk food is contributing to an obesity epidemic.
Junk food is contributing to an obesity epidemic.
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I FELT a surge of sympathy for the harassed-looking young father piloting three small children, plus a shopping trolley piled high with presents, around the supermarket.

The brightly-coloured displays of sweets and selection boxes drew the children like magnets, especially the ones featuring cartoon characters, prompting loud pleas for their dad to add them to the trolley.

It takes a resolute soul to resist the easy option of giving in and buying a bit of peace and quiet while negotiating the checkout, then loading both shopping and trio of live-wires into the car, and to his credit the father didn’t take it.

If more parents followed his example of saying ‘no’, and then distracting the children’s attention from the glittering displays of chocolates and chews, we wouldn’t be facing the prospect of a generation growing up into unhealthily overweight adults.

Christmas just puts more temptations than usual in the way of children to gorge on sweets, but it is a year-round problem and a key cause of the obesity epidemic that is a health timebomb.

The New Year will see a ban introduced on advertising junk food to children on social media, and let’s hope it does some good because something needs to be done, and urgently.

The current NHS bill for treating obesity-related health problems is £5bn annually, and if the trend of Britain getting increasingly fatter continues, it will rocket even higher.

Twenty per cent of children are already classed as obese, and it is projected that three-quarters of the adult population will be overweight by 2025.

That’s not just an unappealing picture of the not-too-distant future, but a downright dangerous one featuring an increased prevalence of serious illness.

It won’t just be about the crippling cost to the NHS, but about millions of lives being touched by illness.

The consequences of a sugar-drenched diet are already with us. A dentist acquaintance despairs at the state of some of the children’s teeth he sees. When he qualified 30 years ago, extracting a child’s tooth because of decay was relatively rare. Now it’s commonplace.

Last week’s announcement of the advertising ban on social media – mirroring that which applies on television – comes too late for some of the dentist’s patients who have lost adult teeth before they are out of their teens.

But some action on junk food is better than none, even though the Government should hang its head in shame for watering down its childhood obesity strategy when Theresa May took office as Prime Minister.

It sent out a badly misjudged signal on what is, potentially, a public health problem that threatens to rival the harm caused by smoking or excessive drinking.

The nanny state at its most interfering can’t stop people eating all the wrong foods, but a set of firm objectives that hopefully makes people think about what is on their plates would have been the responsible course to take.

Instead of which, the onus has been placed on manufacturers and retailers to make food healthier. That will only will only happen if those businesses can find a commercial advantage in doing so.

Yet, ultimately, the responsibility for Britain avoiding becoming one of the fattest nations in the world lies less in the realms of Government action than in millions of individual decisions.

Children especially face a future less bright than it should be unless parents take responsibility and learn to say “no”, just like that father in the supermarket.

Nobody says it’s easy. Every parent knows the challenges of fussy eaters, or how hard it is to resist the demand for sweets or another can of sugar-loaded fizzy drink.

The pressures of busy working lives bring their own challenges, too, with parents opting for ready meals or takeaways even though they would prefer to cook from fresh if only there was time.

But unless parents get tough and face up to the reality that it is their responsibility to ensure that a sensible diet is eaten at home, children are going to become victims of their own weakness for sweets and sugary food.

No responsible parent would want to store up health problems for their children, but there is still in too many families a strange mental disconnect between what is being served at mealtimes and the already overweight child struggling in games lessons at school.

Healthy eating habits, just like good manners and social interaction, have to begin at home where the intake of sugar can be regulated. Advertising bans and a supportive state environment help, but neither can prevent raids on the kitchen cupboard where the sweets and biscuits are kept.

Child obesity is a challenge of our times, and parents are the only people who can stop it growing into an even greater problem than it already is. It’s yet another concern for mothers and fathers, but one they must face up to – for the sake of their children.