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Overfed and Undernourished: the Plight of UK Children Today

In the face of the UK's unfolding child nutrition disaster, Jennifer Swift argues the case for serious regulation of our children's food and how it is advertised, including a ban on industrial trans fats. Published in the Church Times, 23 June 2006.

"This will be the first generation where children die before their parents as a consequence of childhood obesity", warned the House of Commons Health Select Committee in 2004 [quoted in "Sick to Our Stomachs" by Sarah Bosley, Guardian, 29 September 2004]. This stark message about the dire consequences of poor nutrition in childhood has since been followed by a torrent of further developments, ranging from the popular television series Jamie's School Dinners to recent declines in the sales of junk food such as crisps. Yet British children are continuing to pile on the weight. Over a third of them are already overweight or frankly obese, and if the trend continues, by 2020 more than one half will be overweight or obese.

And this excess weight is not the only nutritional problem that British children suffer from. Unpublicised official figures from the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey [jointly funded by the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health] show that huge numbers of our children are not getting even minimal levels of the essential vitamins and minerals they need.

Oxford University's Alex Richardson (who is a senior research fellow at Mansfield College) reveals some of these deficiencies in her new book, They Are What You Feed Them: between one-half and two-thirds of children in every age group are getting less than adequate vitamin A in their diets, 75% of boys and 87% of girls are deficient in vitamin B2, and the list goes on and on.

Dr Richardson points out that while the results of the adult survey are freely available on the Internet [www.food.gov.uk/science/101717/ndnsdocuments], the data for children can only be found between the covers of a £65 book [The National Diet & Nutrition Survey: young people aged 4 to 18 years, Ruston et al, HMSO 2000; can be ordered at www.statistics.gov.uk/ssd/surveys/national_diet_nutrition_survey_children.asp] asks, "perhaps the Government would rather we didn't know?" [They Are What You Feed Them, by Alex Richardson, Harper Thorsons 2006, p. 8].

The reasons why so many children today are either overweight or missing vital nutrients or both are not hard to find. A child who prefers computer games on the sofa to kicking a ball around the park is clearly more likely to get fat, but lack of exercise cannot explain those missing vitamins and minerals. Children today are eating more and more food that is high in refined sugars and starches and synthetic fats and additives and deficient in everything else. To take just one example, the Food Commission reports that the sugar in a single bottle of Ribena exceeds a child's recommended maximum sugar intake for an entire day [www.foodcom.org.uk].

In response to this crisis in our children's diets, a coalition of 161 health, parents', and consumer groups have banded together behind the Children's Food Bill, which proposes measures to improve children's current and future health and to prevent food-related illnesses. The Government has largely accepted half of the proposals, such as setting nutritional standards for school meals and banning the sale of fizzy drinks and sweets in school vending machines.

However, there is one key provision of the Bill which the Government is dead set against - banning the broadcast of TV adverts for unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed. Indeed, when on 22 May Ofcom issued a consultation document about food advertising aimed at children, they refused even to include the pre-watershed ban as one of the four options for further action, describing it as "disproportionate".

The advertising of junk food to children is a lucrative business - it is estimated that banning it before 9pm would lose commercial broadcasters up to £240 million of income per year ["Ofcom faces legal action over food advertising" by Julia Day, Guardian 23 May 2006]. There is much rhetoric about the importance of children's nutrition, but the outcome of this dispute will reveal whether our society's proclaimed commitment to helping children to make healthy food choices is real or not. The Children's Food Bill coalition is encouraging people who are genuinely concerned to contact their Member of Parliament about the Bill.

Meanwhile the Government, as if trying to distract public attention from their failure to tackle the vested interests that benefit from our children's ill-health, is trailing ill-considered quick fixes, such as the recent suggestion by the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, that all UK schoolchildren might receive free fish oil capsules ["Brain Food" by Maria Woolf and Jeremy Laurance, Independent on Sunday 11 Sunday 2005]. There is no doubt that most British children (and adults too) consume far too little of the essential fatty acid omega-3, the vital nutrient supplied by fish oil, which is necessary for a healthy heart, brain and immune system.

Nor is there any doubt that several scientific studies have shown that a form of omega-3 can help children with hyperactivity and dyslexia. But there is no firm evidence yet that these supplements would improve the behaviour and performance of normal schoolchildren. Dr Richardson is the scientist behind the Oxford-Durham trial, one of the few properly-controlled experiments showing that omega-3 can benefit children with specific behavioural problems, and so she is scarcely one to undervalue it, but she thinks Alan Johnson's new-found enthusiasm for omega-3 needs to be properly channelled.

"Scientists in Oxford have drawn up a proposal for a proper scientific trial of omega-3 in mainstream schoolchildren," she said. "Our charity, Food and Behaviour Research, is trying to raise the funds needed which are a tiny fraction of of the cost of giving omega-3 supplements indiscrimately to all school children. It seems more than silly to consider spending billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on supplements when we don't even know what this will achieve. What's more, it's always better to get nutrients from food if possible" [Telephone interview, 12 June 2006].

However, there is one simple step the Government could take which would certainly benefit the health of the nation's children (and adults as well) - ban the use of transfats (partially hydrogenated fats) in food. Made from vegetable oils heated to high temperatures so that they become semi-solid, transfats are found in biscuits, sweets, cakes, ready meals and fast food. The twisted shapes of transfat molecules throw a spanner into many processes in the human body, and they are believed to be ten times more likely than saturated fat to cause heart disease. Denmark has banned transfats and the United States has begun to require the mandatory labelling of products containing them, but here in the UK the Government is leaving it to the supermarkets to remove transfats from their products.

Banning transfats would cost the taxpayer nothing, nor would it evoke cries of 'nanny state', because transfats have been chosen by food manufacturers, not consumers; furthermore, because transfats actively block omega-3 in the brain, getting rid of them might even improve the behaviour and school performance of our children.

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