Junking our junk-food culture

Junking the jun-food culture

Two food-related news items caught the eye this week. The first involved the Beano comic, which was criticised for apparently promoting junk food to children on its website. The second was linked to the use of weight-loss drugs by the NHS. Some health experts worry that, though seemingly a good thing, it will actually do nothing to address the underlying issue – our collective obsession with unhealthy food. Both stories speak to a junk-food culture, something the restaurateur and food campaigner Henry Dimbleby described last week as “all-pervasive”. We need to rethink how we tackle obesity and improve long-term health outcomes. We cannot go on as we are. We need to junk our junk-food culture.

An investigation by the British Medical Journal found that the Beano‘s website features lots of quizzes involving foods that tend to be high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). It identified 125 separate quizzes or fact files that mention chocolate, 143 that feature cakes and even one that features alcohol. It has ten food games, eight of which revolve around chocolate, cakes, sweets, doughnuts or fried chicken. There are also frequent references to well-known HFSS brands such as Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King and KFC.

It’s an incredibly irresponsible way of promoting unhealthy food. We should be taking unhealthy food out of the spotlight. At the moment unhealthy food has a starring role in children’s minds, and things like this glamorise it and make it more appealing. We should be making healthy food more appealing and affordable.

Kat Jenner, director of nutrition, research, campaigns and policy at the Obesity Health Alliance, quoted on the BMJ website

Meanwhile, a professor of cardio-vascular medicine was quoted in the Guardian as part of its story on the use of diabetes drugs to help people lose weight. The drugs work by mimicking hormones that help people feel full after eating food.

Unhealthy food is the biggest cause of death and disability in the whole world. The question is, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to let the food industry go on feeding us this rubbish and promoting it … and then give drugs to try and stop the effects of all this unhealthy food? Or are you going to try and stop the food industry doing this?

Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardio-vascular medicine, quoted in the Guardian

The government announced in May 2022 that it was postponing two elements of its obesity strategy that discourage the eating of unhealthy food. The implementation of the ban on ‘buy one get one free’ (Bogof) deals for HFSS food and drinks was initially delayed for a year “in light of unprecedented global economic situation and in order to give industry more time to prepare for the restrictions on advertising”. At the time of writing, it is expected to come in to effect in October 2023.

Restrictions on TV advertising of junk food before 9pm and online adverts were also delayed. Then, in December 2022, the government pushed back implementation of advertising restrictions for a second time, on this occasion to October 2025, which is outside their current term of office. 

Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, commissioned by the UK government and published in 2020, described the country’s eating habits as a “slow-motion disaster”. It warned of a toxic connection between child poverty, poor diet and hunger. It stated that “only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal” and recommended that a further 1.5 million children be offered free school meals.

Dimbleby’s report outlined four main objectives:

  • Escaping the junk-food cycle to protect the NHS
  • Reducing diet-related inequality
  • Making the best use of the land and protecting the environment
  • Creating a long-term shift in the UK’s food culture

Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.

We have consistently argued that, as a society, we need to rethink how we tackle obesity. We cannot go on as we are.

LBL brings greater meaning to learning, particularly subject learning, by making life itself the primary purpose – and focus – of learning, which is organised around life-based themes delivered through subject content. Food education and healthy eating — knowledge, knowhow and practice — must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving health outcomes. It needs to be proactive and not reactive.

The Life-Based Learning approach to improving health outcomes involves children and young people:

  • learning about the body itself — knowledge
  • learning how to look after the body — knowhow
  • applying the knowledge and knowhow — practice

The ‘practice’ element is crucial. Active learning – actively engaging children by doing and experiencing – makes learning fun, helps to embed new knowledge and enables them to see the practical, real-world relevance of their learning.

Image at the head of this article by Hans from Pixabay.

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