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There’s more to childhood than counting calories

The obsession with expanding waistlines is narrowing horizons for children - and replacing adult guidance with health tips.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Politicians, companies and charities are lining up together in the trenches in the war against childhood obesity.

Last week, in Britain, Sainsbury’s announced that it was financing a £3million programme to help 5,000 obese children and their families. In addition, ‘nutrition nannies’ will be treading the aisles to advise families on healthy eating and staying active. This week, the Chicago mayor asked restaurants with over $10million in annual sales to post calorie counts on their menus, so that kids can moderate their intake. This comes a year after Democratic and Republican heavyweights joined forces to announce a 10-year programme combating childhood obesity (1).

Increasingly everything that children do is assessed with reference to body mass index (BMI). Indeed, the obesity issue seems to be one of the few areas where adults feel they can give some moral guidance. Adults today have a hard time telling kids what is right and wrong, how they should develop themselves, or why they should exercise self-control. Good now equals active, low fat, and smaller waistline; bad equals inactive, full-fat and bulging belly.

Childhood obesity has become the bottom line justification for children’s activity. A few weeks ago, the government proposed that kids should go on school trips to help combat childhood obesity (see Who killed the school trip?, by Josie Appleton). The same justification is given for why children should also play sport, play outside with their friends, and walk to school on their own. The need to combat obesity apparently also means that they should eat good food, and eat with their family at mealtimes.

Conversely, it is said that children shouldn’t play video games too much, sit at home not doing anything, or eat on their own whenever they like, because that will make them fat.

This signifies a profound narrowing of vision. Questions of self-development and self-restraint are posed in one-dimensional terms of weights and measures. Children’s activity is judged in terms of narrow goals and ends, the numbers of calories that it burns, rather than being seen as simply a normal party of everyday life, or as useful as an end in itself. So long as their arms and legs are moving, it seems, that is okay.

Increasingly children are encouraged to engage in ‘active lifestyle programmes’. The Department of Heath gave some children pedometers to measure the numbers of steps that they take in a day. Schoolchildren in Denver received similar pedometers back in 2002, and have been counting their steps ever since. Experts try to work out what is an acceptable pedometer reading: ‘How many steps per day do children need?’, asks one article, plumping for 12,000 steps for girls and 15,000 for boys (2).

In Minnesota, an obesity researcher designed a classroom that encouraged children to fidget. An article reports: ‘all of the desks have been replaced with adjustable podiums. Instead of chairs, children stand, kneel or sit on big exercise balls while they work and they are actively encouraged to move about the space.’ The children are adorned with sensors to measure their every movement. Another US company designed a toy known as ‘Fizzees’ (Physical Electronic Energisers), digital pets that children care for by moving around. Lots of jumping makes for a happy Fizzee (3).

Here, the authorities are trying to attach meaning to children’s everyday mundane activities; government targets are being pursued through activities such as children walking to school or running down to the park, or even just fidgeting.

Video games are okay, apparently, so long as they involve activity. Groby Community College in Leicestershire introduced the game Dance Dance Revolution to encourage reluctant girls to exercise. The Nintendo game Wii received cheers from some quarters because it increased kids’ activity levels. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is considering replacing play areas in some of its US restaurants with kiddie gyms, to help them burn off the calories.

Even the question of obesity itself is seen in very flat moral terms. Gluttony was a sin because it meant gorging the self at the expense of higher spiritual goals, such as praying and doing good works. The problem was not so much the kind or quantity of food that sinners ingested, but their motivation for doing so. It was a question of character and inner life, not just of digestion.

Although obesity is now the number one sin with which to scare children, it’s seen in peculiarly pragmatic terms. There is an obsession with measurement. The UK Department of Health released cutting edge advice on how to measure child obesity levels, and called on headteachers to carry out these measurements in primary schools. The problem with obesity reduced to bald statistics: it causes X amount of damage to children’s health, and costs the NHS Y million pounds per year and the economy as a whole Z.

Researchers are busily working out all the various ‘factors’ that influence childhood obesity. One Bristol researcher found that it was influenced by lack of sleep, while another academic found that it was caused by watching more than eight hours of TV a week at the age of three (4). There are lots of complicated programmes to encourage families to create a new environment for children, with all the correct factors in place. The question is not just that Johnny is greedy and needs to eat less. Instead, there is expert advice on micromanaging families’ every lifestyle choice, from food to mealtimes to weekend routines.

MEND – the charity financed by Sainsbury’s – aims at ‘involving the entire family in healthy eating and an active lifestyle programme’, including everything from ‘changing family attitudes towards healthy eating and physical activity’, recommending ‘practical ways to remove unhealthy food triggers’, and ‘learning to be a healthy role model’. All this is apparently about ’empowering them with the knowledge and skills to overcome obesity’. This interfering jargon almost makes you miss the Ten Commandments.

These policies are in danger of breeding a new nation of self-obsessed gym goers, who are forever counting their steps and calorie intake. Kids shouldn’t be thinking about their weight, even – or perhaps especially – if they are fat. They should be thinking about winning a game of football, improving their tennis serve, playing games with their friends. They should be having fun, chilling out.

There is more to childhood than not being fat. School trips broaden the mind, sport is fun, walking to school teaches you independence, eating good food with your family is more satisfying and sociable than eating alone. Adults need to work out how to give kids more substantial guidance – on what it means to be a good person, how to develop yourself and exercise self-control – beyond waving your arms and legs around to reduce your BMI.

(1) Political bigshots put their weight behind war on childhood obesity, The Times (London), 10 May 2005

(2) How Many Steps Per Day Do Children Need?, Wendy Bumgardner, About.com

(3) Physical inactivity and childhood obesity, Tash Lee, FutureLab

(4) Sleep loss in child-obesity link, BBC News, 19 October 2006; TV watching link to child obesity, BBC News, 19 May 2005

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Topics Politics

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