Andrew Vine: Revolution in children’s unhealthy eating habits has to begin at home

THE young mother’s supermarket trolley was piled so perilously high as she wheeled it towards the checkout that the two children with her had to catch items that came toppling out.

They’d have been better off emptying it and putting everything back onto the shelves and into the chiller cabinets, for a bigger load of rubbish destined for a child’s plate would be hard to find.

Vegetables? No, didn’t look like there were any. Fruit? No, nothing there either. Fresh meat or fish? Not a trace.

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Instead, there were frozen burgers, crisps, giant bottles of pop, pies, re-formed lumps of frozen chicken coated in bright orange crumbs, huge bags of oven chips, cakes, biscuits by the score and processed breakfast cereal with probably as much sugar as a bar of chocolate.

The children helping their mum with the shopping were no more than about 10, but already on the chubby side. No surprise there, if what they were unloading onto the conveyor belt forms the backbone of their diet.

And, in fairness to their mother, she was far from alone in her choices on a busy Saturday. A glance along the row of checkouts showed the same sort of stuff being unloaded from trolley after trolley.

It’s hard not to conclude that those two children, and others in the same supermarket, will one day unwittingly find themselves part of a set of statistics about how the nation is growing ever fatter and less fit, just like the Yorkshire people who have the unenviable distinction of holding an alarming place in the country’s obesity problem.

According to Public Health England, Doncaster is the second-fattest local authority area in the country behind Copeland, in Cumbria, with 74.4 per cent of people overweight. In fourth place is Ryedale, with 73.7 per cent.

When the figures are broken down by county, North Yorkshire is second – again to Cumbria – with 68.3 per cent of people either overweight or obese. Leaving aside the irony that the farmers of North Yorkshire grow and rear some of the finest and healthiest food to be found anywhere in Britain, these are worrying statistics.

If getting on for three in every four people in some parts of Yorkshire are overweight – or clinically obese – then there are obvious implications for public health, as well as for the well-being of the individuals concerned.

The difficult part, of course, is how to address it. We live in an age when every problem produces a cry of “What’s the Government going to do about it?”, but when it comes to people’s eating habits, it’s a particularly tricky one to crack.

David Cameron can no more station a commissar in every supermarket with powers to order our young mother to replace the giant pack of crisps in her trolley with a bag of apples, than he can burst into her living room to prevent her kids from eating another chocolate biscuit in front of the television.

Education and encouragement are the only real weapons that the state has at its disposal in the battle against dangerously expanding waistlines, and it can take some heart from the example set by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s successful campaign that transformed school dinners a few years ago.

For adults, ultimately it comes down to personal responsibility. There surely has to be a moment when the dangerously overweight look themselves in the eye in the bathroom mirror and think: “Time to lay off the chips.” If they need the support and advice of health professionals to help them get to that point, then that’s fair enough, but in the end the decision and the willpower have to be their own.

Transforming the eating habits of children accustomed to a diet high in processed food, fat, salt and sugar also has to begin at home. But even parents determined to do the right thing know only too well how difficult it is to keep their sons and daughters on the straight and narrow.

A young relative of mine gets terribly frustrated that she takes her son to pre-school with a scrupulously healthy packed lunch including plenty of fruit, only to find that he’s demanding crisps and chocolate when she collects him because that’s what other boys and girls have, and when they’ve shared with him, he likes both.

Nobody could sensibly or realistically suggest that the young should be barred from having sweets or crisps altogether. It’s all a matter of proportion and common sense, but the big food manufacturers and supermarkets must take a share of responsibility.

Marketing and packaging of fatty, sugary and salty food is too often aimed at children who pester their parents into submission. The insidious sugaring of so much food over the past few decades also merits scrutiny.

A dentist friend worries that with each passing year he sees younger and younger children with severe tooth decay. It’s steadily got worse over the 30-plus years he’s been in practice, and he’s convinced that it’s because so much sugar is added to processed food, as well as the routine consumption of fizzy drinks.

It’s going to be a prolonged and multi-faceted business tackling obesity and taking areas like Doncaster and Ryedale out of a league table neither would want to be in. But with a bit of luck and perseverance in preaching sensible eating, our young mother’s children will be unloading a better trolley load of groceries at the checkout by the time they have their own sons and daughters.