Norwegians, Crisps and Bicycles

Dr David Ashton feels that lack of exercise, rather than junk food, is the culprit for soaring levels of childhood obesity.

I grew up in a poor part of South Wales in the 1950s. Somewhere, I have a black and white picture of my class at school aged around 10/11 years. Leaving aside the very poor clothes and shoes, what strikes one immediately is how skinny all the children are. In fact, I can only remember one obese lad in my year who was, as a consequence, the victim of a lot of bullying and name calling. But my point is that he was the exception, despite the fact that nutrition in those days was very poor. Nowadays, of course, the media is full of reports about fat children. Some have even claimed that the current generation of children may die before their parents (a silly assertion in my view). Still, I do feel sad when I see obese children whose lives are being blighted by a condition which, in my childhood years, was actually quite unusual. How did this happen?

Part of the answer, of course, is the availability of sugary and fatty foods which clever marketing executives nowadays design with children in mind. Still, I do think it is nonsense to suggest that the current epidemic of obesity in children is because of Coca Cola or Gary Lineker and Walker’s crisps. In fact, despite the protestations of sanctimonious politicians and single-issue food lobbyists, TV advertising has very little influence on food consumption in children. In my view, the much more important factor is the marked decline in physical activity over the past few decades, particularly in what I call Activities of Daily Living. Compared with my own childhood when walking or running to school was the norm and the majority of people didn’t own a car, today’s children simply don’t move very much.

A recently published study from Norway lends strong support to my argument. Researchers studied the weight, exercise levels and eating habits of 924 children aged 9 and 10 years. Their results showed that, contrary to popular perception, overweight children often eat more healthily than their thinner classmates, which suggests that a lack of exercise, rather than a junk food diet, may be to blame for obesity.

So, rather than busying themselves with whether or not little Millie has sneaked a packet of crisps into her lunchbox, school officials and local politicians might be better addressing the question of why, despite the fact that 90% of children in Great Britain own bikes, fewer than 2% actually ride them to school while more than 30% of children say they would like to.

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Norwegians, Crisps and Bicycles
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