All content of this blog is my own opinion only. It does not represent the views of any organisation or association I may work for, or be associated with. Nothing within this blog should be considered as medical advice and you should always consult your Doctor.

Stop giving my kids junk food!

Change 4 Life logo
When my children were pre school age, we received a lot of information about the governments "Change 4  Life" scheme.  For those who haven't heard of it it's designed to promote increased exercise, reduced consumption of junk food, eating five + fruit and veg per day and so on.

The risks of cancers, diabetes, obesity and heart disease increase as a result of eating too much of the wrong foods we are told. we received cloth bags, leaflets and were invited to various events locally promoting the scheme that is still actively running in the area.

Once they hit school age, dodging junk food (and I use the term "food" loosely!) becomes a skilled art form.

I first noticed it when we visited our local leisure centre, which is after all somewhere purpose built for fitness.  I therefore did a double take when the first thing I was greeted with upon walking through the door, was a row of vending machines.  Not a single healthy choice is available; just rows of crisps, poor quality chocolate and fizzy drinks.

Why?  People are going into the building 99% of the time purely to do something positive for their health, yet the glowing beacons of temptation have to be negotiated before you're even through the door.  What message does this send children, who are being taught about great and not so great food choices as part of the school curriculum?  Why aren't they using one of the many healthy vends that are available such as this or this.

Negotiating for one class isn't too difficult, signing up for a week long activity course however is a whole different ball game.  Friends from the group hit the vends at lunch time, as do the leisure centre staff running the course joining them (you know, the guys promoting a healthy active lifestyle) - but you have to tell your child that whilst you know lots of other people are getting it, that stuff isn't good as part of a daily diet?

"Why does the leisure centre sell it then" my daughter asks?

The cynic in me wants to say it's because there is a huge confectionery factory next door, and profiting from children by supplying addictive unhealthy foods is how this country seems to roll;  but I resist and say that sometimes people make different food choices.  Even I can't understand how the government can promote Change 4 Life as a supposed healthy living scheme with one hand, whilst filling their centres with junk.

(Update:  I contacted the leisure centre who stated healthy food didn't sell as well and they had "vending targets to meet".  So basically they get targets to sell foods known to be harmful to health to generate profit, and then the NHS uses that money to mop up the resulting diseases?  I'm clearly missing an integral piece of the puzzle here....)

Next up was a social group run by a charity within school grounds (but independent from them) one evening per week. As my daughter was waiting for a place at the local school, and as they had always been educated out of the area, we thought this would be a good way for her to meet other children before starting.

We walked in and paid, before being advised we could leave money for "tuck" if we wanted.  I turned around to see a woman unveiling rows of sweets and chocolate and my heart sank.  Seriously?  They're there for an hour and a half straight after dinner.

Please don't misunderstand, my children get chocolate and "treats", but like many I suspect they're also sensitive to the chemicals and additives in many commercial brands.  From as young as 2 years old I knew instantly if someone had given her "treats" when out, as she would be one big emotional mess for hours.  OK so not too out there for a 2 year old, but try that on for size with a 10 year old and see how fun it is.

It seems to me it's all a bit of a gamble, as there hasn't been a generation previously raised eating half the additives there are now.

Toffee which is just sugar would be a million times more preferable than:
"Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Cornstarch, Invert Sugar Syrup, Wheat Starch, Vegetable Fat, Wheat Flour, Humectant, Glycerol , Malic Acid, Potato Starch, Citric Acid, Tartaric Acid, Gelling Agent ( Gelatine) Emulsifier( Glycerol Mono Stearate) Acidity Regulator( Potassium Citrate) Salt . Colours: E100, E120, E133, E171, Flavours: Blackcurrant Concentrate, Carrot," found in these "rainbow pencils".

We eat 70%+ dark chocolate, we make our own raw chocolate (that the kids love doing and takes literally minutes), make "bounty bars" and other bits and pieces.  If they go to parties or special occasions, we go with the flow on cakes, crisps etc as much as possible (although my daughter knows she can't eat anything coloured red!)  but these are odd events not a daily occurrence.

So, the next week before attending I decided to be one step ahead on the planning front.  We arranged for her to have dinner, not buy "tuck", then have some strawberries with chocolate sauce when she got home.   She eagerly agreed and off she went.

When she got back I was preparing her dessert.  "I'm not really hungry now "she said, "because I won a race I was given a Caramac bar, and then they gave us a cola flavoured drink and biscuits before we left...."

Last week my daughter started her place at the new school, within the first week we had received a letter home inviting parents and pupils to a talk about nutrition, and learn about a fitness programme they were launching.  Great I thought (although I noticed it was run by Juice +, don't even get me started on them!) healthy eating is part of the curriculum.

We take a lot of time, trouble and expense to send our daughter to school with a healthy lunch, so I was a bit confused this morning when I found money in her school bag.  She explained she was taking money for school tuck?  Scuise me what?

Apparently the school sell crisps and biscuits at break time, and she wanted to get some.  Confused I called the school and was advised they only sell healthier crisps that are baked not fried like Space Raiders or Mini Cheddars, and the biscuits are just plain rich tea or digestives.

Head meet desk.

These products contain among other things Maltodextrin, Flavour Enhancers, Monosodium Glutamate, Glucose Syrup, Glucose-Fructose Syrup and Partially Inverted Sugar Syrup. Blood sugars must be all over the place when the children return to class.

And what happens if blood sugars spike?  "interesting" and "lively" behaviour follows (to be diplomatic). Check out the different behaviours that followed different foods during this experiment.  There were 720 incidents of mean, physically aggressive or hyperactive behaviour in the group that consumed biscuits, crisps, and fizzy pop.  In comparison there were 120 in the healthy food group.

Google "child behaviour carbs" and you will find page after page highlighting how sugar and refined carbs cause problems for many children, even if as minor as reduced concentration/brain fog.

Why I asked, didn't they sell fruit, cheese or something that would at least provide some nutrition? I was told they had tried that but the children wouldn't buy it, and that there was no obligation for them to buy anything.

If the children don't want something vaguely healthy, why sell anything at all? Is it about profiting from our children? We all know how easy it is to snack on crisps and junk, even when you're not hungry.

No the children don't have to buy it, however children that are sensitive are often even more driven to consume these foods that give them a "buzz".  Their friends are eating it and who wants to be the odd one out? I don't want to create a big deal around these sorts of foods, I shouldn't have to negotiate this when going to school.

Also consider the children are at school for only just over 6 hours, with lunch in the middle.

I asked on the Facebook group what their school's "tuck shop" offered and it seems there are big variations, I suspect depending upon the demographic (mums in a nearby area would freak out if the raisins weren't organic, let alone allow crisps and biscuits!). One mum replied:
"It sold junk pure junk, my protests went unheeded and they "lent " her money so she didn't feel left out. I watched my child stagger home high on sugar and colourings".
Lots replied saying only healthy choices are available such as fruit, vegetables, cheese, cherry tomatoes or dried fruit such as raisins; others that their children took a snack from home.

Since then my daughter has joined another school social club and been invited to a school disco, both of which are advertising sweets/pop and the latter includes a free hot dog!  It appears the lure of crap is marketing material, rather like enticing a junkie to your party with the offer of free crack cocaine.

Then there's "birthday sweets" and with 30 odd kids in a class that's not infrequent, plus on several occasions the teachers have given them out as rewards.

So it seems to me we have a situation where the demographic that would most benefit from a nutritious break time snack, don't get them as they wont buy them. In an area where for some children 5 per day is more likely to be of confectionery, the school takes the view of give em what they want?

The trouble is even taking food sensitivities out of the equation, if you consume lots of junk food you get addicted - and when you are healthy choices just don't cut it, hence why people don't buy it.

This is probably to be expected.

A 2010 study exploring food preference in rats (which aren't humans but we do share many of the neurobiological and hormonal mechanisms of flavour learning and appetite regulation), found as you might expect - those who had access to "junk" ate more and gained more weight than those who didn't.
What researchers didn't expect was that these foods triggered a "dopamine high", but that with regular consumption the "hit" became less; causing the rats to actively consume more food to repeat the high.

After the rats had gorged themselves to a ridiculous weight, the junk food was taken away and replaced with healthy food. Rather than eat the healthy food, the rats chose to starve themselves for two weeks. The rats would even intentionally subject themselves to electric shocks to get to the junk food, even though the healthy food could have been eaten without enduring a painful burst of electrocution. 

You may recognize this as the textbook definition of addiction.

A 2014 study found after just 2 weeks on a diet that included daily access to cafeteria foods, including pie, dumplings, cookies, and cake -- with 150% more calories -- the rats' weight increased by 10% and their behaviour changed dramatically. They also reduced their appetite for novel foods, a preference that normally drives them to seek a balanced diet.

The concluded:
We observed that rats fed a cafeteria diet for 2 weeks showed impaired sensory-specific satiety following consumption of a high calorie solution. The deficit in expression of sensory-specific satiety was also present 1 week following the withdrawal of cafeteria foods. Thus, exposure to obesogenic diets may impact upon neurocircuitry involved in motivated control of behavior.
Basically after 2 weeks, a high cal solution couldn't trigger the sated response in rats, and this was still the case even a week after they had stopped eating cafeteria food.  They theorise diets that cause obesity may impact on neurological pathways that drive behaviour.

We know junk food is deliberately manufactured to be addictive.  In 2001 a study of 120,877 people found:
"The largest weight-inducing food was the potato chip (or crisps to us Brits). The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not only as an additive but also in the starch of the potato itself — all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food.

"The starch is readily absorbed,” Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors says. “More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike” — which can result in a craving for more."
Regardless of whether they're baked or fried!

A few eye opening facts from Jamie Oliver as part of his campaign to protect the health of our youngsters:
  • FACT: The UK has one of the highest child obesity rates in Europe.
  • FACT: By the age of five, one-fifth of children in the UK are already overweight or obese.
  • FACT: By the age of 11, this figure increases to one-third.
  • FACT: 78.5% of children, aged 5 to 15, fail to consume the recommended five portions of fruit and veg per day.
Perhaps they could disseminate this information to all schools and leisure centres?  Because as it stands, it seems society in some areas at least, is unconcerned about the health of our children.  Are they only interested the money to be made from them, whatever the long term cost?  I don't want to be one of those parents, but similarly I don't want my children to become just another statistic.

Update:  I have received an email stating the school have withdrawn Space Raiders from the school tuck shop and are asking the children what healthier snacks they would be prepared to eat (fruit apparently didn't sell and made a loss for the school).  Unfortunately this feels like a drop in a very large ocean!

Cafeteria diet impairs expression of sensory-specific satiety and stimulus-outcome learning


  1. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to happen upon this article! So much sense being spoken, I'll be sharing far and wide :-)