15 February 2005

Should government ban junk food?

The European Commission is taking steps to counteract the harmful effects that junk food is having on the European population. Should our government be doing the same?

Obesity has been classified as a 'European-wide problem of epidemic proportions', according to a recent article in Time Magazine. The article also states that the European Commission (EC) is going to go all out to counteract the harmful effects of junk food in the next five years.

Time mentioned that the EC's first priority is to target advertising that promotes junk food, especially to children. The EC has warned that unless food manufacturers stop promoting and aggressively marketing food that is loaded with sugar, salt and fat to the youth, they will consider introducing legislation to restrict advertising during children's TV programmes.

The plan is for the EC to start working with food manufacturers, educators, health experts and consumer organisations to initiate a voluntary scheme to promote healthy eating and exercise to the young people of Europe.

Similar problems in South Africa
The obesity epidemic is just as rife in South Africa and a startling percentage of our population is overweight.

South African children are just as vulnerable to attack by persuasive TV ads encouraging them to overload on junk food. In addition, our children are becoming more and more obese and less and less active. So what should we do in this country to reverse the obesity avalanche?

Punitive legislation and bans on advertising are one way of controlling what people eat, but I am more in favour of the educational approach which is going to be attempted in the EU.

I believe:

  • that each individual is ultimately responsible for his or own health, weight and fitness levels.
  • that parents and educational facilities need to guide young impressionable children to develop good eating habits and to be physically active.
  • that nutrition education should form a vital part of the school curriculum and that teachers should be trained in basic nutrition by dieticians.
  • that nutrition education should be integrated at all levels of schooling, i.e. the pre-primary, primary and secondary school levels.
  • that the alarming trend of our public schools not providing facilities for sport for all learners, should be reversed and that all forms of physical activity should once again become part of the school curriculum. Even disadvantaged schools in poor communities can make time for their learners to spend part of the day doing physical activity. An excellent example is the Chinese and Japanese practice of including exercise in all schools and workplaces. At any given time, all scholars or workers put down their tools and do rhythmic exercises, or walk briskly round and round the school or plant.
  • that communities should create facilities for their children and teenagers to be active. This does not require expensive sports facilities, but it does demand commitment from parents and teachers to organise a time and place where children can participate in safe activities.

The role of government
I am also in favour of government action to support and encourage all the role players to develop a more responsible attitude towards advertising of junk food to children and teenagers.

The EC initiative is a good example that I trust will be followed in South Africa. We need a think tank, representing the Department of Health, the food industry, educators and NGOs, to sit down and plan how we can remove the relentless onslaught of advertising of junk food to our children.

Legislation should be the last resource. The food industry is not deaf to the alarm bells that are ringing about obesity and its link to food and beverages laden with salt, fat and sugar. It is encouraging to note that some of the biggest fast food companies in the world are adjusting their marketing and no longer pushing mega-sized portions of hamburgers and sweetened cold drinks.

What you can do about this problem
As a parent you need to be aware of the dangers of obesity and how easily a child can succumb to this problem. Too many fast foods at the school tuckshop, too many take-away meals, too many unsupervised meals with friends, too many parties, too much pocket money and not enough exercise will seal your child's fate.

It is so easy and quick to buy take-aways instead of having to cook balanced meals and it is so handy to have your child sitting in front of the TV or PC all day instead of having to organise that he or she participates in some form of activity.

But if you want the best for your child or teenager (and I believe that the majority of parents only have the best intentions towards their children), then you need to start the anti-obesity war in your own home by providing balanced, healthy meals and snacks and teaching your children how to select a good diet for the rest of their lives. You can also encourage every member of your household to become more active so that you all reap the benefits.

Do something proactive about the obesity epidemic today - at home, at your school or in your community. The final responsibility still rests with you. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc


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