I very rarely watch television in the mornings, but yesterday I happened to be at the gym while breakfast TV was on. As I was waiting for the treadmill to start up, the screen popped up with Good Morning Britain. For those readers who don’t live in Britain, this is a magazine morning show on a channel called ITV. I was about to switch to a music channel when I noticed what was on the screen in front of me. An item was discussing chocolate Easter eggs and how much exercise is needed to work off the subsequent calories. So far, so obvious. What made my jaw drop was the reporter went on to ask two little girls how many chocolate eggs they had eaten over Easter, showing the total calories and then telling them how many hours of running or Zumba they would need to do to work it off.
The girls looked to be about seven or eight. They both looked a completely normal size and weight. As they listened to the reporter, they looked shocked and shame-faced at the results. Rather than being given the chance to enjoy a time of the year when everyone indulges in a little excess chocolate, they were being made to feel guilty and that their innocent consumption of the sweet stuff over Easter had serious consequences. I really couldn’t believe what I was watching.
As I thought about it, I became more and more angry. It demonstrated how easily a few words from an adult could have the most devastating effect on children’s self esteem and body confidence. I am almost sure I did not even know what calories were at that age, but I do know that children are aware of their bodies, food and exercise at a much earlier age these days. I do not have children, but I do have many friends with young children and I see many things in the world today to do with children and food that really worry me. So-called ‘perfect’ bodies are everywhere in the media; the idea pressed upon young children is that if they do not have a six pack or can squeeze into a size eight pair of jeans they are somehow not quite good enough. Conversely, we are surrounded by junk-food advertising, much of which is targeted specifically at children. The vicious cycle of dieting and binging can be set very early on.
It is a tricky issue; most of us are aware there is a childhood obesity problem in this and many other countries. Michelle Obama has famously made childhood obesity one of her target causes with her Let’s Move! campaign. The World Health Organization (WHO) regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Some statistics suggest that in some year groups, a third of school children are classified as clinically obese.
Children need to adopt a healthy attitude to food from a very early age. Fruit, vegetables, lean meat and fish are great. But, chocolate and sweets are also fine, just not all the time. Having chocolate at Easter is nothing to be ashamed of. Childhood is when many of the essential foundations for healthy living are made; habits, good or bad, picked up at this time will remain with you for life. An acquaintance of mine recently told me she was worried about her twelve year old daughter, as she had discovered that was was taking food from the kitchen cupboards and eating in secret. She went on to say that she herself has had food and weight issues her whole life. It made me wonder what she had said, in total innocence, in front of her daughter over the years.
There is no doubt that many children need to eat less fat and sugar and exercise more. Trying to prevent childhood obesity and all the subsequent health problems which come with it, is incredibly important for the future health of society. It just made me very sad to see how two little girls were made to feel so ashamed for enjoying a simple childhood pleasure. Surely there has to be a better way of encouraging healthy eating and exercise than that?