You heard the recent news; you couldn’t get away from it. Researchers publishing in the New England Journal of Medicine did the math and found that a child’s future weight may be determined by the time they enter kindergarten. A five-year-old who is overweight is four times more likely to be overweight by age 14. And from there, the future is grim.
The focus on child obesity has largely focused on school-aged children, with the assumption that eating habits, especially teen eating habits, need a course correct. Everyone from Michelle Obama to Jamie Oliver to the lunch lady at your kid’s school has taken a crack at lunchboxes, French fries in school and pop machines.
A comparison of the worldwide health statistics shows that Asian cultures are faring the best in weight and longevity issues. Having lived in Japan, I know that they are so culturally different from us that lessons from this region won’t be easily adopted into our culture.
The European way of life holds more promise for us. In France, for instance, there is no doubt that there are key differences in, not only the way the French eat, but also in the way they think about food. France does have overweight children but their obesity rate is much lower than ours. And, here is the rub: They have somehow reversed the obesity trend. We are still heading to hell in a fried-chicken-filled picnic basket and they appear to have figured it out. What gives?
It’s all about what kids are exposed to – and who controls the message. In France it’s not the marketers and advertisers; its the parents and daycares.
When I visited France in 2011, I discovered that there was one radically difference in how French kids are exposed to food right from the start. There are very few “kid’s menus” in restaurants although kids are seen eating (quietly and peacefully, I might add) in everything from the corner bistro to the three-Michelin-star dining room.
Manufacturers, advertisers and fast food needs to be looked at, sure. But it feels as though the culture that allows such pervasive infiltration is more to blame. In France, there is more personal tolerance of governmental oversight. For instance, if processed foods or beverages with added sugar, salt or sweeteners are advertised, they are also mandated to include an on screen, health-related generic message.
We know that cultural attitudes are set in social groups; they start early and are rooted deeply. It begins at home for sure but when I really dug into the French way of life I saw an opportunity, which they take seriously, that has the greatest impact.
In France, there is a heavily subsidized municipal daycare system, called la Crèche, which cares for children from three months to three years and it is here that the pace is set for a lifetime of attitudes. This childcare system takes the importance of food and health to heart. I am now convinced that this opportunity to instill lifelong healthy relationships with food and prevent a lifelong struggle with obesity. And we, in Canada, are missing the boat.
In the Crèche system, all school directors have a nutrition background and have access to a dietician for ongoing advice, direction, meal plans and recipes. Each school has its own cook, who is educated by the dieticians. Food and health isn’t as just a curriculum topic. It much deeper than that, it’s a belief system, a culture, a perfectly natural process.
Not having this opportunity to collectively catch our kids and positively impact their health is simply absent in our Canadian landscape. Not only do we not have a cohesive child-care system here, we aren’t really looking at the food that is served, how it is prepared and what messages it brings. Change that, and reverse the tide of obesity.
A healthy relationship with food in this childhood setting from the get go changes everything. Of course parents also need resources at home from birth. Our culture needs a shake up. We need to vote for better food with our dollars, expect more from our government around childcare, food manufacturing and advertising regulation. We need more access to activity, more support for parents and a renewed love of food and nourishment. This is what it will take to prevent child obesity. Ya, I know. Oh, is that all?