Last week at the liquor store, a cashier handed my five-year-old son a chocolate. "This is your treat," he said with a grin. The gesture was kind, yet clueless. The man hadn't asked if it was okay with me.
Next stop was the Italian grocery store, where the well-meaning owner stage-whispered, "Can he have a cookie?" as she waved the package in front of his face. It has happened so often that my son heels at the storefront like one of Pavlov's dogs.
Everywhere my kid goes – from play dates to preschool parties to the barber shop – it's a "special occasion" in someone's eyes to be celebrated with cookies, chips or candy. Buckets of holiday-themed treats shared at school have made Valentine's Day and Easter the new Halloweens.
I have no problem with my child having an occasional treat. But it feels like we are bombarded with junk food wherever we go.
The time-honoured tradition of slipping a child a treat is no longer benign, says Yoni Freedhoff, founder of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute. "There really was a time when orange wedges were the after-sport treat," Freedhoff said in an interview. But in recent decades, he added, "we have normalized junk food in every facet of life."
Numerous studies have shown that foods consumed away from home are more likely to be low in nutrients and high in sugar, fat and salt (i.e., junk food) than meals prepared at home. A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that U.S. children consumed 40 per cent of their daily calories away from home in 2006, compared with 23 per cent in 1977.
Meanwhile, children are eating fewer fruits and vegetables, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Conference Board of Canada. In 1998, 20 per cent of parents reported that their children ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily. By 2009, that number had dropped to 13 per cent.
Today's junk-food culture was largely engineered by the food industry, according to New York Times journalist Michael Moss. In his new exposé-style book, Salt Sugar Fat, he reveals how food manufacturers hired top researchers, including neuroscientists, to design products to be addictive – with blatant disregard for epidemic levels of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Nevertheless, the food industry isn't working alone, Freedhoff pointed out. In a series of columns at USNews.com, Freedhoff listed sport coaches, teachers and librarians among the "sugar pushers" in his kids' lives. The problem, he wrote, is that everyone who gives a child a treat thinks it's "just one."
All those "just ones" add up. Freedhoff estimated that each of his three daughters, aged 3 to 8, is offered at least 600 calories from junk food, including 26 teaspoons of added sugar (about half a cup), at child-centred activities each week.
According to Statistics Canada, children aged 1 to 13 get more than 25 per cent of their daily calories from sugar – more than any other age group.
Freedhoff said he has nothing against treats at birthdays and holidays. But healthy snacks should be the default, especially now that teens are developing coronary-artery disease and children under age 10 are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, he said.
Close to a third of Canadian children aged 5 to 17 are overweight or obese, Statistics Canada reported in 2012. Type 2 diabetes, once considered an adult-onset disease, is increasingly common in children. A 2010 study published in the journal Diabetes Care estimated the minimum Canadian incidence rate to be 1.54 new cases per 100,000 children under age 18.
Despite alarming news about the decline in children's health, adults aren't getting the message, Freedhoff said. When a parent objects to sugar-laden sport drinks and chocolate bars after a soccer game, he said, "you get painted as the ogre who doesn't let your kid have candy."
Laura Arpiainen, a Vancouver mother of four-year-old girl, said she is struck by how many restaurant servers, bank tellers and neighbours give treats directly to her child, without asking her first. If Arpiainen decides it's not time for a treat, "this makes for many awkward situations and needless tears," she said.
Zero tolerance for sugar could turn a parent into a social pariah, especially since, as Freedhoff noted, providing kids with a steady stream of junk food has become the "new normal." Moreover, one could argue that saying "no" to treats at every turn may not help children learn to moderate their own intake later on.
Instead of wrenching candy out of a kid's hands, Rebecca Davids, a registered dietitian in Toronto and mother of six-year-old twins, recommends fighting the junk-food battle at a higher level. When parents bring jumbo-sized chips and cookies to the playground as after-school snacks, for example, a mother could strike a rapport with other parents and suggest they take turns bringing snacks or commit as a group to providing healthier fare.
Ultimately, Davids said, parents and people working with children need to combine forces to change the food environment, "so the person who is trying to make the healthy choice isn't seen as someone who isn't fun."