I may be totally alone in my views on junk food for children, and this post is by no means the views of all gentle parents. I personally hate the thought of my children devouring sweets, chocolate, cake, cookies, crisps, fast food, you name it, even at their current ages of 3 year old twins and 5 year old daughter. This blog post will explain why I have such strong opinions, how I’ve been navigating dealing with social interactions around junk food, and how I’m aiming to avoid future cravings of junk foods for when they navigate their own lives as adults in a relatively unhealthy society. It then explains why I feel my views sit well within a gentle parenting style.
Is Junk Food Bad for Children?
Yes! In an ideal world, my kids would not ever have any need whatsoever to devour Ben & Jerries, bags of sweets, sickly chocolate cakes, salty crisps… However, we live in the real world full of all of these sickly foods and plenty more. Why is junk food so bad for children, and young children especially? You only need to do a very quick search on Google Scholar for the impacts of junk food diets on children’s mental and physical health. Here is a sample of results on my search:
- “Junk food consumption may increase the risk for psychiatric distress and violent behaviors in children and adolescents. Improvement of eating habits toward healthier diets may be an effective approach for improving mental health” (Zahedi, et al., 2014).
- “It was found that junk food consumption increased the risk of both general and abdominal obesity [in children and adolescents]; therefore, consumption of junk food should be reduced” (Payab & Heshmat, 2015).
- “A worrying proportion of secondary school children report unhealthy eating behaviours, particularly daily consumption of junk food, which may be associated with poorer mental and physical health” (Zahra & Jodrell, 2013).
- “…Junk food consumption is associated with premature heart disease… increasing obesity, diabetes and hyperlipidaemia risk and… raising blood pressure. However, an emerging body of evidence has now demonstrated an association between poor oral health and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk” (Bains & Rashid, 2013).
- “…lack of energy, high cholesterol and poor concentration… various types of skin cancers” (Bhaskar, 2012).
- Finally, a study of children in Mumbai aged 3-6 years found 56% of those sampled had chronic and / or acute malnutrition (Athavale, et al., 2020).
There are literally thousands of studies showing that frequent, even oftentimes daily, junk food consumption is becoming more frequent in our society’s children. The impacts of this change in diet from home cooked meals on their growing bodies and minds if unthinkable.
How To Deal With Junk Food In Social Interactions
Many different groups of friends and family may offer sweets and treats to your children. Frustrating, right? In light of the above information, and in a world where treats are abundant everywhere, it can be infuriating that other loved ones dish out junk like it’s a ‘good thing’. Here is how we aim to approach it, as our children look to us as their guides.
We are very blasé in saying “yes, that’s fine if they want some” about anything offered in front of our children’s ears or eyes. Why? Because we don’t want our children to view these junk treats as bad. If we tell others, and therefore indirectly tell our kids, that these junk foods are out of bounds, what impact may that have? They learn, just through us saying ‘no’ to our family and friends that these foods are ‘bad’. They see that everyone around them is allowed them, and they may crave the idea of ‘what is that thing all our closest friends or family are mmm’ing and treating themselves with around us’. Plus there could be any number of fallout conversations in front of the children, such as “you really should let them have a little bit…”
We haven’t been exposed too much to other people at all, until now. One of our daughter’s best friends is bribed and hooked on sweets. So much so, that her parents have just decided at the age of 5 to try and limit sweets to ‘only on weekends’, which so far isn’t a great success. The Dad very frequently does a dramatic and exciting ‘sweet stop!’ during walks for example. No child has asked for the sweets, but he decides it is a good time to offer some. He asks me every time if they can have one, and I say ‘yes sure’.
What’s The Impact of Saying Yes?
Whilst my children were babies and young toddlers, I always said no to family or members of society who offered my children any form of junk food. I explained that I wanted them to stay healthy. I knew my kids, and knew they weren’t understanding the content of the conversations. That worked fine, until my oldest daughter was around 4 and my gut instincts told me she would understand what the conversations were on about. That’s when I took the blasé approach to saying yes, mentioned above.
It is a bit worrying if you expose your kids to unhealthy foods regularly. However, this is the society we live in and we also want our children to fit into the society around us. I continue cooking and feeding fruits and nuts, etc, as much as possible at home. That home life and non-toxic lifestyle in a place the kids are most loved and comfortable should hopefully carry through to their home lives for the many years in the future.
Gentle Parenting Support
I believe this relaxed attitude approach to junk food in the community, whilst healthy eating at home, goes hand-in-hand with gentle parenting. It encourages children to view the home environment as a place of health and happiness. It also allows children not to feel different or excluded in social situations outside of the home. It gives kids an opportunity to ask why we can’t have all those junk foods at home.
Whilst they’re only little children, I haven’t really been asked why we don’t have the junk foods in our cupboards. If I have been asked if we can buy sweets, I say “I’ll see if I can for the delivery…” and then it’s always been forgotten by then. They are so used to being hyper-excited about fresh strawberries or melons, that the sweets haven’t really seemed to pop into their minds at all.
If whilst we’re in the shop they were to ask for some crisps that they do recognise, I simply say most of the time that I don’t have enough money for that right now but we can get XYZ or see if we can get that another time. Somehow my kids have always been accepting of this response.
I focus on educating my kids on the health benefits of the fruits vegetable we have in dinner instead. Whilst we’re eating dinner I see if they know which vegetables are in it. I ask if they want to know what it does to our bodies, and then I google the health benefit of each vegetable. They know that some foods can reduce their risk of diabetes, which I have, and others help their heart be strong, which is what my Dad died of. I believe educating them in such detail, even at a young age, will help them carry forward the knowledge that different foods do different things to their bodies. When they’re old enough to make their own food choices, hopefully they might research the foods before making a decision.
If you have a fussy child, you may want to read my previous blog post about fussy eating.