July 4, 2013

We’d all be horrified if we heard those words. 

Many of us admit to hearing the famous words “Would you like fries with that?” To upsize the sale most fast food outlets ask that or “Would you like a drink with that?” and too often the answer is for a drink that yields plenty of sugar – on top of the food.

As adults we’ve developed beliefs and habits that serve to protect our health and the health of our children. We don’t even question that allowing kids to have alcohol and cigarettes would harm their health.

Sometimes it took national legislation and the risk of fines to help us adopt good health habits. These include:

  1. Getting children to wear seatbelts in cars
  2. Not smoking in a car when children are in the car
  3. Not selling children alcohol until they are 18
  4. Not selling children cigarettes until they are 18

But what if the stuff we bought them (or allowed them to buy) at fast food outlets had a greater potential to harm their health than cigarettes and/or alcohol.

Way back in 1996 The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published data showing that diet and inactivity combined were about to overtake tobacco as our leading preventable cause of death. Alcohol and car accidents followed way way behind.

But does the odd fast-food meal or soft drink really harm them? “It’s just a treat. Don’t most overweight kids grow out of it?”

NO! More and more research is showing that most overweight kids do not grow out of it. Actually it’s worse. Dosing your children up with starchy/sugary foods may permanently damage their health and pre-dispose them to diabetes and a shortened lifespan – even if they are not overweight. Sadly many children today will have shorter lifespans than their parents.

Then there are two other issues at play:

  1. Rose-coloured glasses: Some parents who are overweight themselves and have kids who are overweight (Do they have a muffin top?) simply do not recognise that their kids are in fact overweight and are not concerned with what they let their kids eat. Maybe they are concerned but are simply not aware of the harm that some foods and drinks can do.
  2. Some parents, and even grand-parents use the excuse “I only took them out for a treat.” because they themselves are sugar-addicted or fast-food-addicted and they use the kids as an excuse to get their own fix.

Staff in shops and supermarkets are well trained in the laws prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors.

People who work in bottle shops and pubs need to pass the RSA (Responsible Serving of Alcohol) exam. Of course they learn not to sell alcohol to minors, but the RSA goes further.  They are prohibited from selling alcohol to any adult if they suspect the adult will serve the alcohol to a minor.

But people who sell food and drinks that could increase the risk diabetes and earlier death are not bound by similar laws. Neither are the un-knowing parents who buy starchy/sugary foods and drinks for their children.

Some argue that food choices are all about “personal and parental responsibility”. But unfortunately, if you go to your local fast food outlet or food hall you’ll probably see that this simply is not working. And let’s NOT blame the parents. This is a “whole of country” problem and our health care system is bleeding our tax-dollars because of it. Adult onset diabetes in minors is exploding. This is not just their problem it is our problem too.

Let’s face the harsh reality. It took seat belt legislation, cigarette legislation and alcohol legislation to bring about real community-wide change. But when it comes to weight and food, what do we legislate against?

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. (Albert Einstein)

Excess weight might be a symptom of metabolic disease or disfunction, not just a symptom of eating too much and lack of physical activity. Actually the reverse may be the case – that adults and children who have (undiagnosed) metabolic disease are inclined to moving less and eating more, as well as eating and drinking foods their bodies cannot tolerate, and that they become more overweight or obese as a result.


Telling them to “eat less and exercise more” might just be addressing the symptom and not the cause.

However, when it comes to our changing food environment, there is little doubt that many overweight parents and children have difficulty making good choices when at a fast food restaurant whose business interests are served if they can addict customers.

Let’s not fail our children.