Category Archives: Nutrition in the news

Is our health threatened by fake news?

You may have noticed that the media is, understandingly, a bit preoccupied with the current political situation in the UK and beyond. Each daily headline and news story seems to feature Brexit gloom and impending election doom with the latest random Trumpism thrown in to really mess with your head. When the murderous dictator of North Korea was described as being a ‘pretty smart cookie’ by the US president, it was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. At least every now and then, a story about something completely different sneaks onto the news agenda. Of course, if the subject happens to concern itself with nutrition and health my ears begin to prick up like a meerkat in the savannah. Which is exactly how I looked when I heard about the latest threat to our health – diet drinks.

Diet drinks??! What now? I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything left that could be enjoyed with impunity. Especially since there has been so much focus on reducing the population’s consumption of sugar, fizzy drinks had been all but demonised. Diet drinks, on the other hand, with their sugar-free halo, were being heavily promoted as being a healthier alternative. Even the NHS had recently endorsed diet drinks by publicising a plan to remove all sugary drinks from their hospital vending machines and canteens whilst leaving those that are sugar-free. With the sugar tax looming in the near future, manufacturers are also finally starting to reduce the amount of sugar they use in their products and replace them with artificial sweeteners. Was our health threatened by some new evidence that called into question the safety and use of artificial sweeteners? Or was there something else in fizzy drinks that is even more harmful than sugar? Is it Kendall Jenner? Didn’t she start some sort of supermodel Pepsi protest?? Are we about to be hit with a new kind of Pepsi Challenge?? How has it all gone so terribly wrong for sugar-free?

As a Nutritionist detective, I had no choice but to investigate the source behind the recent scary headlines. The culprit was a recent study carried out by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University, Boston. This published study was widely reported in the media as showing that consuming diet drinks triples your risk of stroke and dementia and is far worse for your health than drinking sugary drinks. This sounded pretty shocking but it all sounded quite conclusive. I am sure that many people would not have bothered to read past the dire headlines and they didn’t need to. The same conclusion was repeated in all the newspapers, tv channels, online and in social media. I suspect this may have prompted some smirks of satisfaction from clean eaters and agave syrup aficionados, alike. After all, the news was practically an endorsement of the liberal use of ‘natural’ sweeteners. But oddly enough, the media didn’t really reveal many further details about the findings of the study or offer any explanation as to what it was in the diet drinks that was found to be so harmful to our health.

Of course, it is not as if we even need to drink fizzy drinks, sugar-free or otherwise. Everybody surely knows that drinking water and milk is far better for our health than any soft drink on the market, despite whatever they claim to do on their labels. We are also very aware, nowadays, that consuming too much sugar is very harmful to our bodies and puts us at a serious risk of ill health. However, it is also true that as people still enjoy soft drinks they will continue to go on drinking them. As even the trusted broadsheets featured the diet drink danger story in the nuanced style of tabloids, what is anyone to think? What are parents supposed to do now when they’re faced with the choice between a fizzy drink crammed full of sugar or one without? Which drink is potentially worse for our and our children’s health? Is developing obesity, diabetes or dental caries any worse for us than having a stroke or suffering from dementia? Can’t any parent just have a Diet Coke break anymore without having to consider what’s going to kill them sooner?

Unsurprisingly, like most media flurries, I discovered that the scary claims were only a storm in a teacup because all was not what it seemed. In fact, the conclusions of the study widely quoted by the media were anything but conclusive. The study only concerned a selective group of data, taken from an entirely different, ongoing study – the Framingham Heart Study Offspring – to look for any links between the consumption of soft drinks and dementia and stroke. As you can imagine, using the data from a different study to find new links is not exactly straightforward. Fundamentally, there will be numerous factors and limitations of the study that must be considered throughout as they will inevitably influence the results and the subsequent interpretation. As they were considered in the full interpretation of the study by the authors, you would expect the media to also consider them before they come up with a snappy headline.

But incredibly, they didn’t because despite the negative headlines, the study did not actually show any causal link between the consumption of diet drinks and a risk of stroke or dementia. Yes, you did read that right. So rather than being a new threat to our health, diet drinks still remain the ‘healthier’ choice of fizzy drinks. Although, I wonder how many people realise this? I certainly didn’t see any headlines blaring this out. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tactics more akin to marketing are used to draw our attention to a health story that isn’t really newsworthy. After all, ‘Diet drinks still ok’ doesn’t really catch anyone’s eye and that includes me. But I wonder if it is getting worse. Have we been bombarded with so many bewildering political headlines of late that we have become primed and ready to believe ‘fake’ health news, too? Perhaps living in uncertain times makes it even more difficult to tell when stories about our health are slightly spurious. Or has nothing changed and as always, we will carry on believing the news that suits us when it comes to health and nutrition?

As we begin the countdown to the UK election and subsequent Brexit negotiations to unravel, only time will tell if any nutrition health threats manage to steal the limelight away again.  For now, I am probably safe to retreat from my meerkat stance as I expect the media to once again focus on all things political. However, if another extraordinary nutrition claim were to emerge again, my advice would be to keep calm and carry on as there is always much more to a story than what is written in black and white. And like Trumpisms, sometimes headlines only represent a warped sense of reality for which you can only shake your head and think, sad.

After reading some of the latest election headlines from France, I managed to come up with an easy recipe that will distract you with its yumminess. Unsurprisingly, it does not involve a fizzy drink but features sweetcorn. These Thai sweetcorn and spring onion fritters are so simple it makes the perfect go-to recipe when you arrive home hungry and the cupboards are pretty bare.

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Burnt toast, fake news and the inconvenient truth

Ever since I woke up to the shocking Brexit result, I am just a little more guarded every time I listen to the news on tv. Lately, I have also adopted a delay technique that works as a pre-warn system when something else has happened unexpectedly. By simply reading the faces of my children as they eat breakfast and listen to the news before I enter the kitchen, I am able to predict with a high degree of accuracy if what I am about to tune into is bad. For example, finding my children gaping at the tv in silence, mid-bite, on the morning after the US general election gave me the necessary seconds needed to grab onto something (or someone). However, the system is not perfect and at times their quizzical looks and rumpled foreheads mean that I have to face the news blindsided.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, just when I thought that I had heard enough ‘fake news’ stories and actual fake news stories, I found myself listening to the news that the latest cancer risk is now burnt toast. The Food Standards Agency’s latest campaign ‘Go for Gold’ was behind the story by highlighting the possible cancer risk of acrylamide, a chemical formed when starchy foods are subjected to a high temperature. Every news channel appeared to be covering the launch of the campaign, accompanied by a display of every shade of toast as if to demonstrate when toast = cancer. You could almost sense a certain smugness in the news presenters who said they preferred theirs toasted barely beige. While other presenters seemed silently preoccupied and even defensive about their habit of toasting to a mahogany hue.

The news seemed quite improbable amid the abundance of news fakery, especially as it only referred to acrylamide as being a ‘possible risk’. If burnt toast was really so lethal, why haven’t we experienced an epidemic of death by crust? Will burnt toast be a weapon of choice in a future episode of Midsummer Murders? What about the burnt crumbs? Do I finally have a valid excuse not to clean out the toaster? And what about the risk of cancer through second-hand burnt toast aroma? Is my husband trying to kill me???

Whilst looking further into the Food Standards Agency’s campaign, ‘Go for Gold’, I discovered even worse news; this cancer risk is not only about toast. Acrylamide is actually present in most foods and it is impossible to completely avoid it. In fact, the majority of foods containing high levels make up a large part of many people’s diets. For example, starchy foods such as root vegetables, potatoes, potato products, for example, crisps, breakfast cereals, biscuits and bread all contain high levels of acrylamide. This is because acrylamide is produced when these foods are cooked at >120˚C, such as when they are fried, baked, toasted or roasted.

The World Health Organization says that acrylamide is ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans based on studies of rodents who were exposed to high levels and then developed cancer. Therefore, the recommendation is to reduce prolonged exposure to acrylamide, just in case it might cause cancer somewhere down the road. The ‘Go for Gold’ campaign says we can do this by cooking starchy foods less and aiming for a golden yellow colour. Better yet, stay safer and steam or boil, where possible. The campaign also advises to stop storing raw potatoes in refrigerators if they are going to be fried, roasted or baked later as it increases the level of acrylamide produced.

Unsurprisingly, the response to the campaign has hardly been successful and there are many who simply refuse to believe, on principle, that they must change their diets. After all, only the ‘worried well’ generally follow dietary advice for an unproven risk of cancer. And since the range of foods implicated in the advice is so vast, it does not seem realistic to expect many people to reduce their consumption or drastically change the way they have always cooked. The campaign has also caused much confusion over how to follow the advice on a practical level. For example, how are we now supposed to deal with frozen oven chips when they are doubly dangerous for their storage and preparation methods? Are there any biscuits left that are safe to eat? Is caramelising sweet potatoes just another nail in the coffin?

It is likely that the vast majority of the population will ignore the campaign with all the other difficult guidelines such as smoke and drink less, eat a healthy, balanced diet with more veg and less meat and exercise more. In the end, whether the morning news alarms us to burnt toast risks or bizarre political events what we do about it comes down to what we think is ‘fake’ and whether the truth is convenient. Because like fake news stories, people have a habit of accepting that something is true, however outlandish it sounds, if it more readily fits into their lives. Therefore, if there is a real risk of cancer, the Food Standards Agency would do better to concentrate on the food industry and look to methods of manufacturing that will reduce acrylamide levels in foods. This way, the risk of cancer due to acrylamide levels can be reduced at a population level ‘just in case’ regardless of whether or not the risk is believed. However, I imagine that it is also an inconvenient truth that the food industry has a long history of being resilient to any pressure that threatens their profits.

In the meantime, I don’t think that there is any reason to panic about your acrylamide levels and we have not drastically changed the way we cook in my family. Although I live in hope that the campaign will help to encourage my family to stop burning toast because I cannot bear the lingering smell. If anything has changed, we are now eating less potatoes because we have forgotten where they are stored…

In the meantime, I found some sweet potatoes which I used to make my favourite Sweet potato veggie burgers with tahini sauce. If I ever find the potatoes, I may even make my own oven chips!

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Spoiler alert

After many of us in the UK enjoyed a very indulgent Christmas and New Year, it may have come as a surprise to hear that as a nation, we also wasted much food that could have been eaten. After witnessing 3 hungry teenagers take full advantage of our over stocked kitchen, I wondered if there had even been as much as a morsel of wasted food in our house. Especially as my middle child’s favourite Christmas present of a sandwich press seemed to be permanently glowing on standby. It had not only inspired sandwich creations only dreamt of but its constant use heated the kitchen better than any Aga. My children could not have been the only ones who had made a concerted effort to clean their plates over the holidays. That is, if you go by the number of targeted features on tv now focused on losing weight and the competing advertisements for ‘diet’ pills, meal replacements and fitness DVDs. If the UK is really throwing away so much edible food, why is my gym now packed with new members?

Incredibly, research from the supermarket, Sainsbury’s, found that people actually throw away more food that was once edible over the festive season. Rather than this simply being the consequence of buying too much food and reaching mince pie tipping point early, Sainsbury’s has reported a different root cause. Their research showed that festive food is more likely to be wasted because people do not know how to prepare and cook it. And if that isn’t bad enough, according to the waste and recycling advisory body, Wrap, we aren’t much better at thinking before binning household food waste during the rest of the year, either.

The problem with food waste is not just a case of finding ways to get rid of it all besides making a giant food waste mountain. It has now become a global problem with far-reaching implications. Depressingly, it is estimated that worldwide, 30% of agricultural land is used to grow food that is eventually wasted every year. Of course, the waste also generates greenhouse gasses over its lifetime and this will only increase as the population grows and the demand for more agricultural land to feed the world continues.

In the UK, previous efforts from food manufacturers, supermarkets and every part of the food supply chain to encourage us to reduce our food waste have been largely successful. However, Wrap is now saying that we have hit a food waste plateau. Using figures from 2015, they estimate that the UK throws away 4.4m tonnes of avoidable household food waste, annually. This is food that was edible at some point but for whatever reason was binned or composted. In effect, each household in the UK is wasting the equivalent of £470 worth of food every year which seems like a shocking number of supermarket trollies. Wrap attributes the fall in food prices and rising income since 2014 as being behind the food waste plateau.

However, I find this explanation hard to believe considering the unrelenting aftershocks still felt from our annus horribilis 2016. As everyone knows, the result of the UK referendum has changed everything and is still causing the pound to tank, food prices to rise and incomes to be anything but certain. Surely, if Wrap had some more recent figures post 2015, they would show that it has also affected the level of household food waste and worked as an incentive to reduce it. Even superhuman Jamie Oliver has had to close 6 restaurants because of the rising costs in a tough market and ‘pressures and unknowns’! If he can’t make the Brexit vote fallout work then how are the rest of us going to do it?

Without a crystal ball, it is difficult to predict if the Brexit unknowns and political shenanigans happening afar in 2017 will help to continue a downward trend in UK household food waste. How will people react while they tighten their belts amid a growing climate of uncertainty? Will it prompt people to shop wisely, plan their meals carefully in advance and cook everything from scratch? Will there be a growing demand for food with longer and longer ‘use by’ dates? Will ‘leftovers’ become this year’s biggest trend among foodies? Will vegetable peelings overtake spiralised courgetti ‘noodles’ as the new anti-carb?

Only time will tell as we wait for 2017 to pan out. But even if recent circumstances have meant that we are already starting to reduce our food waste, it is still worth mentioning the obvious (and not so obvious) things that you can do to limit your ‘avoidable’ waste.

  1. First and foremost, the obvious. Make a shopping list, stick to it and don’t buy too much of it. Pretty straightforward, I think.
  2. Don’t shop when you are hungry. Again, we’ve all found out the hard way when our stomachs rule the supermarket aisles, that we buy too much of the wrong things. To make it worse, when our brains finally kick in at home, we return again to buy what we actually needed. Shop when your brain is stronger than your stomach.
  3. Learn from your mistakes or at least try to remember them. If you know from past purchases that no one likes a particular flavour of bagel etc; don’t buy it just because they are out of the ones that they do like. No one is going to appreciate that you tried to get the right one. They will only remind you how much they don’t like the one you bought them, if they actually eat it.
  4. When you do buy too much food or if your plans change and you can see that something is threatening to go off, freeze it. Yes, it is a slightly ‘sticking plaster’ solution but at least it buys you time to figure out what you are going to do with it.
  5. If you cannot freeze it then be a bit social. Why not invite people over for a meal? Or cook it and deliver it to someone who could use it. After all, if they can’t use it then they’ll freeze it!
  6. Don’t forget that teenagers are particularly good at making surplus food disappear. They will eat just about anything served to them, especially if it is stuffed into a toasted sandwich, because they are always hungry.
  7. If all else fails and there is no way to cook it, preserve it, freeze it or give it to someone else then you must compost or bin it. Under no circumstances eat it because you cannot bear the thought of ‘wasting it’. Do not treat your body as a bin (that is an entirely different blog).

Now for the recipe. This week, another way to use up stale bread besides turning it into bruschetta, croutons or breadcrumbs. Pappa al Pomodoro is a classic Italian country soup and is a great winter warm-up that will also fuel you up before bracing the elements.

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New Year, new you?

I have had a self-imposed break over the Christmas and New Year period after a hectic end to the year. Like everyone else, it seems, I am back with good intentions and resolutions to start off the year. The annual onslaught of competing fitness DVDs, diet books and ‘easy’ programmes that promise a New Year, New You is in full force. As is the publication of bad health news in the shape of more studies that show us how unhealthy the UK has become. Among it all, another call to parents by Public Health England’s Change4Life initiative to change their ways when it comes to feeding their children. This time, the focus is on sugar.

It is hardly new news that our children are eating too much sugar after finishing a recent holiday where it was positively encouraged and even endorsed by the fat man, himself. But anyone who experienced the repercussions of their offspring coming off a sugar high as the mince pies and chocolates dwindled will understand the potential damage it can do to our bodies. There’s tooth decay and the risk of becoming overweight and obese with the BOGOF risks of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and more. But, didn’t we already know this?

In fact, the hard, cold and depressing facts were released last September, when the results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey were published. The Survey showed that children aged 4-10yrs and those aged 11-18yrs consume 13.4% and 15.2%, respectively, of their daily calories from ‘free’ sugars. Far from consuming the government recommendation of no more than 5% of calories coming from additional sugars, children consume far too many sweetened cereals, yoghurts, cakes, biscuits and everyone’s favourite health villain, sweetened fizzy drinks. So what has changed?

Well, nothing. But it hasn’t stopped Public Health England from publicising the results of a small online survey they commissioned in November 2016. The survey was completed by 200 parents of children aged between 4 and 10 years about their child’s breakfast. Approximately half of the respondents answered questions about a weekday breakfast and half about a weekend breakfast. The survey showed that children consume over half of the maximum daily allowance of added sugar at breakfast, mainly in breakfast cereals, spreads and drinks.

Although online surveys with such tiny numbers are far from the gold standard of scientific research it has been used with the National Diet and Nutrition Survey as the basis for the new Change4Life campaign focusing on children’s breakfasts. The ad campaign highlights this by featuring a child eating a typical breakfast of sugary cereal, toast with chocolate spread and a glass of orange drink that transform to the respective numbers of sugar cubes that they contain. Although it is hard to believe that there could be any parents or children out there who would be surprised that this breakfast could be anything but high in sugar, the ad campaign is actually entirely about something else. Rather than being another reminder from Change4Life that names and shames sources of free sugars that our bodies could do without, the ad campaign is really about promoting their new app.

Yes, Change4Life continues to be down with the kids in their pursuit of technology that markets their public health mantra. Their new Be Food Smart app is similar to the Change4Life’s Sugar Smart app that was released almost exactly a year ago and allows the user to scan the barcodes of foods and drinks using their phone. The app then produces a readout of the product’s sugar content as long as it is actually on their database. The Be Food Smart app follows the same simple concept and allows smartphone users to be even better informed about what they are putting into their shopping trolleys. The original app has been supersized and Be Food Smart reveals the sat fat and salt content as well. To avoid any misinterpretation of the numbers, the app also produces the results in the form of a traffic light label.

I have to say that at first I was a bit cynical about the app as it does not tell us anything new about our food that a label cannot and this is especially true when you scan a product that is not on the database. However, the truth is that many people simply do not read ingredients labels or understand what they mean in the real world let alone, have the time to figure it all out. Manufacturers have not helped as they have not adopted clear, universal traffic light labels that are meaningful to consumers. Therefore, even if using an app to do all the work is slightly gimmicky, if it helps more people understand which foods contain hidden sugars (and sat fat and salt) and means they can make healthier choices, I am all for it. Best of all, like anything new in technology, children will naturally adopt it with ease and be encouraged to use it, even if it’s only used simply to lecture their parents about their bad choices. If you think about it, what could be more irresistible to them?

Which brings me to one of my New Year’s resolutions that many other parents may not like to admit to. In 2017, I am going to try to keep up with any new technology that my children take on and also make time to master my new iPhone before it is due for an upgrade. Which means that I will be enlisting the help of my teenagers to help me eventually achieve the technological equivalent of New Year, New Me. I have a feeling that they are going to enjoy this more than I am…

In the meantime, I will settle for New Year, New Recipe and we might as well start with breakfast. This Banana apple bread is an easy recipe that can be eaten as part of a healthy breakfast or a ready to eat snack.

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A spin on children’s exercise

I read with interest, the other day, that a recent international study has found that British children are some of the least active in the world. Rather than getting their minimum of an hour a day physical activity that is the official government advice, the majority are spending their time watching box sets, playing games consoles and texting while they eat their weight in sugar. As a result, the alliance of health experts has awarded England and Wales a grade of D- for ‘Overall Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour’ while Scotland was one of 5 countries to come joint last with a big, fat F.

However, I found this really hard to believe and could not help thinking that they must have got it wrong. How could this be true when the number of my children’s sports fixtures for school and outside clubs was increasing lately, causing an even worse nightmare of co-ordinating the taxiing to and from pitches. Every weekend we had to sit down together with the home diary and I attempted to broker a negotiation with 3 teenagers about who was being picked up when, who could get the public bus and if we could ride share with anyone. From the arguments that entailed and the complexities of trying pick up at the same time in three different locations you would think that I was trying to settle a peace agreement between rouge states. In a sense, I was because inevitably, agreements were reneged when fixtures were unexpectedly added or cancelled causing the whole plan to fall by the wayside. Therefore, I could not relate to the news that children were not getting enough daily physical exercise. In fact, I was beginning to wonder that if this continues, my children could singlehandedly up the stats. To top all this off, they have now invaded the gym I go to which has had an unexpected effect on my own level of physical exercise. I have been roped into joining them in a weekly spin class, despite promising myself never to get back into that saddle.

About a year ago, I made the mistake of going to my first spin class at a different gym with one of my children and the members of his cycling team because I thought it would be a ‘fun’ thing to try out. However, what I hadn’t bargained for was a class of sweaty, highly competitive alpha males lead by a teacher who shouted at anyone that he thought wasn’t pulling their weight. It was difficult enough for me to understand what we were actually supposed to be doing without falling off my bike so I just tried to copy my son. Unfortunately, his long legs and speed didn’t match mine so in addition to tipping my water bottle all over the floor, I spent the entire time lagging behind everyone while counting down the minutes until I could finally stop.

Of course, when my son joined my gym, like all teenagers, he instantly knew the run of it and began to tell me things about it that I hadn’t noticed in all the years that I had been going. He also quickly established that there was a spin class and insisted that we had to try it out even though I was extremely reluctant. In retrospect, I think that he knew that if he ignored my replies of ‘We’ll see’, I would cave in if I believed that he wouldn’t go on his own. Before I knew it, we were heading into a class, trying to find a bike amongst the crowd. I claimed what I thought was a good bike as it had been left in the centre of the room, which also saved me from hefting over another one. However, as the class quickly started with the blare of the music, I realised that I was starting to fall off my bike as my saddle tilted sharply. I was quickly identified as the newbie as I ran to swap my wonky bike and start again.

Finally sorted out on a different bike, I pedalled away and tried to listen to the rapid fire instructions being shouted out. We did a series of short sprints to warm up but this rapidly progressed into racing and climbing imaginary 3rd category hills in the Tour de France. Unlike the professionals, I didn’t feel that I was gliding past anyone as I tried to pedal out of the saddle as if I was climbing a never ending ladder. It was quite bizarre to be cycling hard in an indoor peloton, sweating to loud techno music trapped in what felt like the worst 90’s disco. Looking up, you could see our pained reflections on the mirrored walls, like some grimaced Tour spectators. The class seemed to last forever but just when I thought I couldn’t pedal anymore, I finally felt a wave of relief as we reached the cooldown and I lowered the resistance on the bike to nought.

I was a fool to think that after a shaky start, I could get out of the next spin class because the following week only got worse. By then, my daughter had also decided to join the gym on the premise that she had injured her knee playing rugby and needed to cycle to help her recovery. And what better way to do this but in a spin class! So pressured now by two persuasive teenagers, I didn’t really have a chance to get out of spinning. This time, the class was even more packed and the bikes were bunched up into a peloton. However, I managed to grab a good bike and squeeze it into the gap between my two offspring. Once again, the blaring music announced the start of the class and instructions were shouted out as we started to pedal. I thought that this time, I had a good chance at not standing out quite so much as I struggled as at least I was hidden in the middle of the pack. Besides, I wouldn’t be the only one at the back of the pack as my daughter would have to be taking it easy with her knee. But as expected, an injured teenager is still stronger than any adult having a Beroca day. The instructor only urged us to go faster with shouts of ‘If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not going hard enough!’. I tried to pedal at a manic pace but glancing aside I soon realised that my ‘hard enough’ is quite different from my children’s. They pedalled possessed as they effortlessly soared past imaginary cyclists on the steepest mountain climbs and left me behind in their wake. They seemed to only get stronger as they accomplished the never ending sprint intervals and they almost looked like they were enjoying it.

By the end of the class I had reduced to crawling on my bike until we finally reached the cooldown. We left the class sweaty and exhausted and unsurprisingly, my children absolutely loved it. They have already signed us up for the next one and so this spin class agony is only going to continue. I know I should be happy that at least they are getting the minimum one hour of physical activity a day but unless I can stop them from trying to meet the maximum then I am afraid that I am going to have to continue spinning. Which means that unless my children get bored of it, I am just going to have to get better at it.

But perhaps that is the key to keeping children active and upping these depressing statistics? Find them an activity or sport that they enjoy and even better, one that takes full advantage of their natural abilities and competitiveness. In other words, if you can find the physical activity that ‘fits’ your child, it will hook them as long as they keep enjoying it. The long list of physical rewards they will get in return from taking part such as feeling good, relaxed and stronger will help to encourage them to do it again. Of course, it is easier said than done to find the Holy Grail of an activity that they enjoy, you have access to and can afford. But no one said being a parent is easy. And be warned, once you find the sport that fits, you may also find yourself joining them for the ride.

All that spinning has made me hungry so here’s the recipe for a great recovery snack. This Pecan and date bread is very easy to make, very easy to eat. Enjoy!

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The other results are in…(and what you can do about it)

Well, it is now official as the results are out there in the public domain and we can’t pretend that it was just a bad dream. It does not make for an easy read but the numbers don’t lie and in fact, the figures show that the situation is even worse than anyone expected. The question is, will these shocking figures finally prompt the UK government to act for the sake of future generations? No, the unwelcome news is not related to the number of growing Brexit woes or the rise of Trumpism or even the domination of the X Factor by supporters of Honey G. The unhealthy results make official what every parent and teacher has noticed over the years – more children are getting fatter. Hot off the press, the Government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England, 2015-16 school year has just been published and it confirms that we are definitely losing the battle against obesity. Figures now show that more children are becoming overweight and obese to the point where it has become normalised. In fact, over one fifth of children in Reception (aged 4–5 years) and over one third of Year 6 pupils (aged 10–11 years) were classified as being overweight or obese. Other depressing ‘highlights’ of the publication show that obesity prevalence was higher for boys than girls and that deprived areas in England had double the prevalence for obesity than in the least deprived areas.

This may be stating the obvious but it is worth just thinking about those figures for a minute. In a Reception class of 30, there will be more than 6 children aged 4-5yrs who are either overweight or obese. In Year 6, over 10 children in a class of 30 will be overweight or obese. This is simply staggering and the figures should be ringing governmental alarm bells calling for urgent action. What is even more astounding is to see such figures while the government’s Childhood Obesity – A plan for Action is still being digested.

The long-awaited and much delayed strategy, which aims to ‘significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years’ has received much criticism after the promise of ‘draconian’ action turned out to be a damp squib. Rather than endorse the 8 recommendations made in the Public Health England report Sugar Reduction, The evidence for action, the strategy focuses on increasing physical activity and asking industry to voluntarily reduce the sugar content of their products by 20% by 2020. But without any punitive measures for companies that don’t voluntarily reformulate, why would they risk losing their loyal consumers?

Even the British Retail Consortium is unhappy with the voluntary code as a mandatory sugar reduction would ensure that all companies would have to follow suit rather than only those who could afford to. But the strategy’s approach is about ‘respecting consumer choice’, the ‘economic realities’ and ‘the need to eat’ even if the only choices are unhealthy. So the BOGOF offers of high sugar junk will continue to flourish alongside the flashy TV ads that promote sugary snacks to children before the 9pm watershed. Sure the government has the magic bullet of the sugar tax to aim at industry but as it doesn’t take effect for another couple of years, I can’t imagine it as being much of a threat, yet. And meanwhile, the number of children getting fatter continues to grow.

I cannot imagine how much worse the overweight and obesity figures need to be to cause the government to address the problem head-on when they don’t even take on the recommendations of their own advisory group. But it is worth repeating 3 key points made in the Public Health England report’s recommendations:

  1. It is unlikely that a single action—such as the sugar tax—would be effective in reducing sugar intake
  2. A structured approach, involving restrictions on price promotions and marketing, product reformulation, portion size reduction and price increase on unhealthy products, implemented in parallel is likely to have a more universal effect
  3. As sugar intakes are higher in lower income groups, reducing levels of sugar in foods through reformulation may have the biggest effect on this group

It is such a shame that the government’s obesity strategy hasn’t fully endorsed these recommendations and come up with something more robust and it feels like we’ve missed another opportunity to make a real difference to children’s health. Especially as the NCMP has underlined that families who live in deprived areas need governmental action the most. It is not difficult to understand that if you live in a food desert, your access to healthy, affordable food is limited and the latest figures show that the unhealthy trend towards obesity is continuing to grow.

However, it does not mean that you cannot do anything about it because for most parents, there is plenty. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own and our children’s health. We buy the food, provide the meals and enable our kids to get exercise or not. We can also see if are children are becoming overweight and not ignore it. It is not easy and takes more work and time, for example, to shop and cook rather than ordering a takeaway. But for most of us, it is not impossible.

We can also pressure our schools and sports teams to provide healthier meals and snacks as they really should be doing. And we can involve our children at home with the shopping, planning of meals and yes, the cooking. This can obviously be very testing at times and may elevate stress levels sky-high but it really does get easier (and can even be rewarding!) We can also help more to support our children participating in sports and fuel them up with healthier foods and drinks. Of course, this also means asking ourselves if we are eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise, too. And if not, why not? If we want a healthy future for our children and grandchildren, what are we doing to arm our families against obesity?

As we wait for Brexit to pan out (and the implications of Trumpism and Honey G) we have to hope that there will be a point where the government and industry will be forced to respond to the obesity figures even if their motives are primarily financial. In the meantime, I will continue to play the bad guy in my family and fight the ongoing war against junk food as my children go through adolescence. I may be war weary from arguments caused by saying ‘no’ to snacks of biscuits or copious amounts of Nando’s sauce but it’s a small price to pay if I can give them a healthy future.

Now for the recipe. This one came about after finding some abandoned rice cakes in the back of the cupboard that my daughter no longer liked the flavour of and I wondered if I could do something with them. Turns out that they make an amazing Popcorn chicken.

popcorn-chicken-blog1

 

Picky genes still mean you have to eat your greens

I am certain that I was not the only parent last week who suddenly stopped what I was doing and glued my eyes to the morning news when I heard that we can now shift the blame for our children’s eating habits on their genes. Anxious to hear more evidence that supports my theory that there is no upper limit to the amount of peanut butter a teenager can consume provided they have enough milk, I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the news story was about toddlers. A study widely publicised by the media and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry of more than 1,900 families with twin toddlers, found that the children’s genes influenced fussy eating and a refusal to try new foods. In fact, they found that picky genes played a role in 46% of fussy eating and in 58% of the rejection of new foods. In other words, the study demonstrated to parents that all those hours they spent with tears of frustration, tearing their hair out, cajoling, bribing and doing anything they could to just get their children to eat a little bit of veg was a massive waste of time because the genes weren’t having it.

Almost immediately, the media was flooded with an influx of competing interviews with parents attached to toddler-sized fussy eaters who were absolute nightmares, as television hosts nodded on, reassuringly. After all, how can parents be expected to do anything with a picky eater if it’s genetic? As the headline of the study was repeated throughout the week, the heavy burden of trying to feed a fussy eater was lifted from the shoulders of parents, with a collective sigh of relief, and was placed firmly into the arms of the picky genes.

However, what many people did not pick up from the study was that they did not pinpoint one particular gene responsible for all that pickiness that could put the parents of fussy eaters in the clear. The authors of the study believe that the genetic influence was likely to be the result of several different genes that, for example, could affect how sensitive individuals are to the differing tastes, textures and appearance of foods. Moreover, the study confirmed that environmental factors still play a larger role in eating behaviour than genetics. In other words, the environment in which the children lived and experienced at meal times made a much larger difference as to whether the children were fussy eaters or not and even influenced whether they rejected new foods.

Unfortunately for parents, what this suggests is that we cannot simply blame our children’s fussy eating on their genes. The role parents play in creating a positive environment is still key to their children’s eating behaviour and genetics aside, there is a lot we can do to encourage them to be less picky. So rather telling parents to throw in the towel, this study is actually saying that they can still help their children overcome picky eating with the right environment, even if their child is genetically prone to being a little fussy. Which brings me to some suggestions of how exactly to create an environment that helps to overcome picky eating.

  1. Keep calm and carry on – It can feel as if you are at war with your toddler at mealtimes but it pays to stay calm and consistent and use meals to set a routine. Set rules such as everyone sitting at the table until everyone is finished eating or no tv at mealtimes. Give lots of praise and encouragement when your child is eating and try not to overreact to a refusal of food. Introduce new foods one at a time and try to get them to try at least one bite (and give lots of praise for doing it). Even if they don’t like the food, don’t stop offering it on another day.
  2. Don’t ask, don’t tell – Don’t offer your child a menu, give them the same food as the rest of the family, as much as you can. Increase the variety you offer over time and keep serving whatever the family is eating even if it was refused on a previous occasion. You know that almost mythical number of times a child has to try a new food before they like it? Double it! Whatever happens, don’t tell them they can have something different to eat, instead. If you let them go off-menu, they are more likely to interpret it as a reward for refusing to eat the family meal.
  3. It’s all in the details – Do not serve too much food on their plate at a time as it can be overwhelming. Don’t worry too much about messiness and let them touch their food if they wish to. Just keep praising them if they (or others) are eating and try to ignore bad behaviour. Limit mealtimes to a set amount of time and remove the dishes when the meal is finished rather than waiting for hours for them to finish everything. Do not insist that they finish their entire plate of food or use pudding as a reward for eating well. Use a sticker chart instead.
  4. Every little ‘helps’ – Try to involve your picky eater with the food shopping and cooking, if possible. This is not easy and is messy but if they can ‘help’ by ticking off their own shopping list, for example, or by doing some simple tasks such as stirring or placing food in a bowl or bread in a bread basket, they are more apt to become more interested in eating.
  5. 1st World problems – Try not to make up for lost meals by giving your child too many snacks between meals or they will not be motivated by hunger. Unsurprisingly, you will not find many picky eaters in countries where there isn’t an abundance of food.

 

It goes without saying that these suggestions are no magic bullet but at least they should help to override the picky genes. Let’s face it, children—and particularly when they are picky eaters—are a lot of hard work and feeding them requires an endless supply of patience, time and determination. But no matter what, most children will grow out of being fussy or stop by succumbing to peer pressure in school canteens and suddenly you will realise that they are pretty much eating normally. Until they become teenagers and they discover food combinations only dreamt of by pregnant women, such as one of my children’s favourite sandwich fillings at the moment: peanut butter and lemon curd. Which brings me back to my theory, that there really is no upper limit to the amount of peanut butter a teenager can consume, in any combination, provided they have enough milk.

And now for another recipe involving peanut butter but in the classic combination of pb & banana. These healthy muffins make a great breakfast, afternoon snack or a nice addition to a packed lunch. Of course, Peanut butter and banana muffins go down best with a glass of milk.

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