Kids today are surrounded by an overwhelming amount of unhealthy, ultra-processed food and marketing for that food. Niki Bezzant explains how to navigate a healthy path.
It's a hard time to be a kid.
We might not think so, as we watch our children playing on devices of unprecedented computing power and living in unprecedented comfort. We might look back on our own childhoods and think: these kids have it so easy.
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But kids today are arguably at far greater risk than any other generation. Their environment is conspiring against their health. What do I mean?
Kids today are exposed to environments that health experts call obesogenic. That means they're surrounded by an overwhelming amount of unhealthy, ultra-processed food and marketing for that food. It's almost impossible to escape.
This has been demonstrated by ground-breaking local research which showed, by means of cameras worn around the necks of children, that they're exposed to alarming levels of ultra-processed food marketing on a daily basis. It's on their screens and in their rooms. They're exposed to it even when they're in "safe" places like home, sports venues or school.
The way cities and towns are designed also impacts kids' ability to move and get outside. The safety, or otherwise, of streets and neighbourhoods and the access, or otherwise, kids have to open spaces — as well as free time — can make it difficult to get enough exercise. And the busy, stressed and financially pressured lives of parents can put the old institution of home-cooked dinner at the table with the whanau under threat.
This is playing out in rates of childhood obesity in New Zealand. One in nine children has obesity overall, with far higher rates among Pacific children (28 per cent) and Maori children (15 per cent). Heartbreakingly, children living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas are almost three times as likely to suffer from obesity as children living in the least deprived areas.
Having obesity means kids are far more likely to have other problems into adulthood: diabetes; heart disease; mental health issues. They're also likely to earn less and suffer from discrimination and prejudice.
None of us wants that for our kids. So what can we do to support their basic human right to good health? If we have the privilege of a stable and comfortable home and enough money to buy nourishing food, we shouldn't take that for granted. Those things mean we can do things to help strengthen our kids against their obesogenic environments.
A start is by modelling a good relationship with food and healthy eating behaviour. Kids notice stuff; they are unlikely to develop a love of vegetables if they have a parent who eschews anything green. On the other hand, if they're regularly with adults who love a wide variety of whole, fresh foods, there's a better chance they'll go that way, too. (The same goes for dieting behaviour, by the way. Young peoople, especially girls, can hardly be expected not to dabble with fad diets when they see parents dieting and hating their own bodies).
Another thing we can do is have conversations with our kids about marketing and advertising, especially of junky foods and drinks, and especially when it's subtly embedded in social media and games. A kid who recognises they're being sold to has a better chance of exercising their own judgement when they're in a position to choose what they eat. And being marketing savvy is a useful skill in all areas of life, not just food.
Many of us think education is the answer to the obesity epidemic. Knowing what a healthy diet looks like, and how to navigate the many, many choices they're faced with every day is certainly going to be useful for any kid. And parents have a role to play there too.
Talking about why we eat certain foods and don't eat others is important. But it might be more important to simply share and impart a basic love of food. If you can, teach your kids to cook. That's a gift we can give that they can use their whole lives.