As a physical education teacher, I see every day that children are eating food that is bad for them. They are eating too much processed food, including sodas, sweets, fast food and other junk foods. All are packed with unhealthy ingredients. But why are they eating this stuff?
Well, bad food is big business. Billions of dollars are made each year by junk food manufacturers. Food that is sweet and fast and cheaper to make, which means bigger profit.
Like any business that wants to increase profits, each year more money is spent on advertising.
There are good reasons food companies would want to sell directly to our children, according to Dr Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Companies want children to recognize their brand very early on, creating a loyalty that could last a lifetime. They want children to pester their parents for that food, and they want children to feel as though it is special, just for them, separate from the boring healthy food that grownups eat.
The advertising aimed at achieving these goals is everywhere, especially on TV, and now more than ever on social media.
In the US, for example, the average American sees 10,000 food advertisements per year – and that is just on television, according to Kelly Brownell, psychology professor and director of the Duke World Food Policy Center. And as marketers become more sophisticated in the use of mobile phones and social media, the future for our children looks downright frightening.
Our youngest children have become hooked on brands. That means parents face an uphill battle to get their children to eat healthily. Our busy lives make it harder to avoid buying high calorie, pre-packaged foods or eating in fast food restaurants with their supersized portions.
In an increasingly competitive environment, food companies spend their time devising ways to sell more of their product. Obese children are just collateral damage.
The number of obese children is alarming, not just in the UAE but worldwide. The UAE government’s national agenda on this front aims to reduce the prevalence of obesity in children from 13 percent in 2014 to 12 percent by 2021.
Child obesity in the UAE is a serious problem. Statistics published by the Abu Dhabi Department of Health in 2014 revealed that 14 percent of students across the emirate’s schools were overweight, while 15 percent of them were obese.
The stakes are high. Overweight children are more likely to develop diabetes and high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. And aside from the physical issues, there is the emotional front: overweight children are teased or bullied in the playground and tend to have low self-esteem and depression.
The problems are not restricted to being overweight. Poor nutrition can affect bone growth and development and the immune system, as well as reducing the ability to concentrate in school.
So what can parents and educators do to make a difference? Here are my suggestions:
- Put pressure on policymakers and companies to protect children from fast food advertising;
- Teach our children about why food matters;
- Provide easy access to healthy food for children at home, in school and in public;
- Talk to children about the influence marketing and advertising can have on our choices;
- Talk to other parents about their struggles with proper nutrition, and join forces for support and to search for a solution, so that your child isn’t the only one in the class without yummy treats; and
- Most importantly, we need to build resilience in our children so they learn to choose what they actually want instead of commercials and corporations telling them what they want.
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Nura Arabi is a physical education teacher in Abu Dhabi with a health promotion background who advocates for parents and children to have a healthier lifestyle. Through radio appearances, her profession and through her writing, she wants to change the world for children’s health one healthy tip at a time.