NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Is the food industry exploiting our kids?

An evolving health crisis of childhood obesity is upon us. Is this the generation where children are condemned to live shorter lives than their parents? Dave Shaw investigates.
Are you children receiving healthy messages about the food they eat? Photo / Thinkstock
Are you children receiving healthy messages about the food they eat? Photo / Thinkstock

Countless factors have led us here, with nutrition playing a major role. Many foods now advertised to kids are higher in sugar, salt and fat than those targeted at young generations before. Children are hardwired to fall for these flavours. The food industry is arguably exploiting the biology - and psychology - of children.

They aren't just providing a source of calories and nutrients for a child, they're impacting their health in a way that could warrant future legal action. Many children are growing up believing food should be served deep-fried and sugar coated. Is this ethical? If other countries were causing havoc on our children's health like this, then we'd put a stop to it.

A film shedding light on this topic is Fed Up, which may be the most important documentary in recent times. The film essentially says, we have a problem, a problem that many vested interests have no intention in solving, and a problem that must be dealt with if we're interested in our survival.

In the food industry's defence, they are giving us what we want and if we ask for healthier foods, they will provide. But in the end, profits come first.

Here's a heads up about some food industry insights that may be affecting you and your family.

The bliss point
This is the perfect amount of sugar - or salt and fat - that allows a food to become highly salient. When these tastes combine, they provide a dopamine-fuelled rush driving us to eat more. It's no surprise children want to eat more of the food that tastes good. Unfortunately, the high consumption of sugary, salty and fatty foods can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes or much worse.

Hyperprocessed food
There are many heavy hitting facts about the harms of eating too much sugary and other hyperprocessed foods, yet many of us continue to buy, serve and eat them every day. There is no difference between some processed food and sugar itself. Saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes can be essentially the same thing.

The food industry has learned what humans want and is only too happy to oblige. At every eating opportunity or on every street corner awaits a sugary or salty snack made to satisfy our craving. It's what people of all ages gorge on to feel good for a few moments or to relax. Who doesn't want to get on this ride, right? And when we do, we are only more than tempted to ride it again and again.

The marketing of children's food is a controversial topic, with many companies under siege for how how they promote their food to youngsters. Children often don't know the difference between good and bad food and have to rely on others to tell them - usually their parents. But when they see the Golden Arches or colourful packages covered in cartoons they immediately connect with a product. After tasting the addictive combination of sugar, salt and fat, the marketing image is permanently engraved on their mind. Suddenly, they want more.

Maternal disempowerment
What does a mother do when she has the difficult choice of giving her child what they want or giving them what's best for their health? This is a common struggle against an overwhelming tide of marketing and, possibly, addiction. Sometimes even the parents don't know what's best, so who's left to pick up the reigns? Parents, and their children, need to be educated on what are the healthier options, and the healthier choice must become the easier choice.

Public misperception
A fast food diet should not be socially accepted, but it is. So, the real goal is to change how we view food. The government has a role to play, but if we look at the great public health successes, they come from changes in how we perceive a product. Smoking for example is now seen as deadly and disgusting, when it was once sexy. If you look at something and say, "that's horrible, I'd rather have something else," you're not going to feel drawn to eat it. We can apply this learning to how we eat. We need to take the power out of certain foods, from there, saying "no" to eating junk is easy.


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NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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