Are you being stalked by junk food? You are not alone

It has been a busy week and an even busier weekend full of sporting events and the usual homework/housework catch up. It didn’t start very promising with a visit to the hospital walk-in clinic on Friday with a child who had head-butted the corner of a table at school and now needed the cut in their forehead to be glued together.

Unfortunately, it also happened right before lunchtime so we both sat very hungrily in the waiting room for what felt like an eternity before we were called to see the triage nurse. Although both of our tummies were grumbling, I didn’t think that it would be a good idea for the child with a potential concussion to eat anything, not that there was much on offer to buy. In fact, the only food available was proudly displayed in 2 enormous vending machines selling every kind of crisp, chocolate and candy you can imagine.

It seemed pretty ironic for a hospital to be selling and ultimately profiting from the type of unhealthy food that we should be avoiding if we don’t want to end up developing an obesity-related disease and back again in a hospital waiting room. It may seem easy to resist the big vending machines at hospital but having had several experiences of waiting 4 hours in Accident & Emergency for a child with the ‘wrong kind of spots’ or for sports injuries, x-rays or bandaging, it can be pretty difficult to not give in. This time, we were very lucky to manage to get patched up and away in under an hour and could get a late lunch at home but I kept thinking about the juxtaposition of the shiny vending machines full of junk food in a waiting room full of ill people.

More was to come this weekend and at times, it felt as if junk food was stalking us when we were most off guard. First, at athletics club. It was a beautiful day and the track was full of children and their coaches going through several stretches and drills and finally, timing some events. While watching the child with the glued forehead working hard, the younger age group who finished earlier began to loiter around the clubhouse, running in and out of its entrance. Some of them spotted their parents in deep conversation, and stopped to grab their hands and desperately try to tow them inside the clubhouse. What was with the hurry to get inside, I asked? The Tuck Shop, of course, which sold a multitude of sweets and drinks. Unfortunately, it was not open and there were some very disappointed faces on children who clearly thought they had earned it after their workout. However, the parents were clearly relieved that they didn’t have to face their child in another battle of wills in trying not to give in to buying more rubbish. This time, we dodged the junk food bullet but sometimes we parents don’t even get the chance.

Another day, another sport. This time U16 rugby—the last game of the season—played against a team at a pitch almost an hour and a half away, driving. After playing a very tough game for the full 80 minutes, the team comes away not victorious but happy, albeit, a little battle-worn. They are also ravenous. What do they get served for the post-match tea? One small, solitary sausage roll! Even several hours later when my child arrives home, still hungry, the look of contempt on their face and their horrendous mood remain until after a big snack.

It is slightly depressing that junk food seems to infest every part of our lives and it is increasingly difficult to avoid. We always hear references to the obesogenic environment we are living in and what we should be doing, as parents, isn’t exactly a secret. We know which aisles of the supermarkets we are better off avoiding, we know which restaurants and cafes sell us the unhealthy stuff and if we are honest, we also know what foods we should be eating to stay healthy. But what is slightly insidious now is that junk food is still creeping into places that we do not expect to encounter it. So it is frustrating to find when you are stuck in a place that is supposed to be promoting health but it is also promoting Monster Munch. And it’s infuriating when you are trying to do the right thing by encouraging your children to play sports and you are still somehow surrounded by readily available sweets and treats. And it is tiring having to explain to your children why you are not serving hot dogs and sausage rolls all the time at home when every week after training or a fixture this is precisely what they are offered by their club as a recovery meal.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect sports clubs to raise funds and economise without using Tuck Shops and serving their players meals on a budget and we know the NHS is in need of funding. But surely we can do better than this if we want to fight against the wave of junk food that is spreading into every corner of our lives. Hopefully, the outcome of the upcoming general election will also bring with it new opportunities to tackle the high obesity levels in the UK. There is some hope that things will improve in the future as last March, the Parliament’s health select committee’s recent report, Impact of physical activity and diet on health recommended banning the selling of unhealthy foods in NHS hospitals. But rather than waiting for the tide to change, I think I will always bring some food with me to sports training and fixtures and continue to play the ‘bad cop’ at home by trying to stop the onslaught of junk food from at least getting in through our front door.

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