Cultural hang-ups about food are making us fatter

Stories about babies being fed blended McDonald’s make the rest of us feel better – but the truth about obesity is much more complex

 

Last week, a conference run by Safefood heard about a mother in inner-city Dublin who fed her baby pureed McDonald’s. If you didn’t know better, you might suspect this of being an urban myth, along with the one about KFC not serving any chicken, and the burger that was found to contain actual cow.

I have no trouble taking it at face value, though. I once employed a childminder who brought my 15-month-old to McDonald’s for lunch. “But I gave her an Actimel to drink,” she offered by way of mitigation, to the sound of my first-time-mother’s heart thudding to the floor.

Somewhere between the McLibel Trial and Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, McDonald’s became a shorthand for all sorts of societal ills: obesity, bad parenting, food poverty, corporate greed. But while it’s always nice to have a billion dollar company to blame for our children’s expanding waistlines, our obesity crisis isn’t all about fast food.

Yes, it’s hard to make the case for fast food as a nutritious alternative to baby rice. McDonald’s fries contain 15 ingredients, including salt and sugar, which is sprayed on to make the colour look more appetising. Some chicken nuggets are about half muscle, with the rest a mixture of fat, blood vessels and nerves, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Medicine.


Happy Meal mother
We love stories such as the Happy Meal-blending mother because they make the rest of us feel we’re doing much better in comparison – they’re part of the reason 85 per cent of us, in a Bord Bia survey published yesterday, can say with a straight face that we have a “healthy diet”, a higher proportion than any of the other nine countries surveyed. But the truth is much less convenient, and far more complex.

We are fat. We are getting fatter. One in four of our three-year-olds is overweight. Six per cent of them are obese. I suspect it isn’t the handful of Big Mac-blending mothers who are doing the most long-term damage, so much as the rest of us – those well-intentioned parents who constantly exhort their children to try “just three more spoons”, or to “please, this one time, just clean your plate”.


Where our calories come from
Another report in this paper, published the day after the Safefood conference, quoted Prof Mike Gibney of UCD’s centre for food and health, who pointed out that fast food and soft drinks account for “a minority” of calories we consume, while we get far more from so-called healthy foods such as chicken, potatoes and meat.

A clue as to why this might be comes in a study published in 2006 in the journal Appetite, which found that 85 per cent of parents praise, cajole and bribe their children to eat more at mealtimes.

I find this statistic confusing: I mean, what do the other 15 per cent do? In the roughly 7,665 mealtimes I calculate I have overseen since my eldest child moved on to solids, the number at which no praising, cajoling or bribing took place could be counted on one hand. The study found that pressure of any kind doesn’t work – children eat better when they’re left to their own devices.

But some cultural hang-ups are hard to let go of. On one level, we know that once our children aren’t overweight or starving, and are getting a good variety of food, the actual quantity they eat shouldn’t matter. And yet, it’s hard to silence that voice in your head, the one that probably sounds a lot like your own mother’s as it pleads with you to think of the starving children in Africa. My own mother never made me clear my plate, but I still feel inexplicably guilty if I throw out leftovers or send a meal back unfinished in a restaurant.

Even though we no longer live in a time when food is scarce, Irish society still equates a clean plate with successful parenting, and “picky eating” with failure, when in reality, being selective about what they eat is precisely what we should be aiming for in our children.

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