Health visitors concerned by children’s diet

Health visitors are increasingly worried by the diets of children they encounter through their daily work. A survey conducted for a BBC Six O'Clock News Special Report, found that eighty per cent of health visitors believed they had seen an increase in the number of children who do not have a balanced diet over the last five years.

Health visitors reported seeing babies and toddlers being given mashed up fried chicken, burgers, Chinese take-away and other fast-food in place of home cooked meals on a regular basis. One baby had to be taken to hospital for excessively high salt levels by one visitor after discovering the baby had been weaned on instant gravy.

Health visitors interviewed for the report were worried that there was no proper concept of children's food other than that which is aggressively marketed towards children. "There is still a belief that spoiling children is OK, and that usually involves sugary foods, before babies are even old enough to handle solids," a health visitor from Tyneside stated.

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 Press Release: Wednesday, 3rd December (BBC Six O'Clock News)

 

Health visitors fear for junk food generation

BBC Six O'Clock News Special Report

Some parents are putting burgers, fried chicken and other junk food in the blender to use as baby food according to a BBC Six O'Clock News Special Report.

Eighty per cent of health visitors surveyed by the programme said they are seeing more children who do not have a balanced diet than they did five years ago.

Several of the interviewees reported seeing mothers use blended burgers as baby food after being told to blend up selections from 'whatever they were eating' to wean their child.

This practice was reported across the UK by health visitors who are in a unique position to observe family mealtimes.

Health visitors from East Hull, Camden, East Yorkshire, Canterbury and Glasgow all reported seeing regular incidences of babies and toddlers being given mashed up fried chicken, burgers, Chinese take-away or other fast-food in place of home cooked foods, some even before a suitable weaning age.

The salt and fat content of these foods can result in obesity, and in some cases more serious effects.

A health visitor from Croydon had to take a baby into hospital for excessively high salt levels after being weaned on instant gravy.

Health visitors interviewed for the report were worried that there was no proper concept of children's food other than that which is aggressively marketed towards children.

For example, in Bracknell, Berkshire, a respondent reported babies regularly receiving crisps instead of baby biscuits to teethe on.

In North Lincolnshire and again in Exeter, health visitors had to intervene when it was discovered a mother was weaning her baby on mashed up Chinese take-away, again because of the dangerously high salt intake.

Even in cases where mothers were making an effort to eat healthily, this was undermined by confusion over labelling.

Ready meals marked '98% fat free' or 'Healthy option' disguised high salt levels and a lack of fresh ingredients.

Health visitors from all over the country pleaded for clearer labelling - sodium should be labelled as salt, fructose as fruit sugar for example.

'These parents don't have a science degree,' joked one Glasgow professional.

Weaning is an area where health visitors and the Government are working to educate parents.

Qualitative evidence from health visitors themselves show this is much needed - an example given was of chips being given to eight-week-old babies in St Helen's.

Another example that was frequently mentioned was the use of sweets and biscuits as pacifiers 'until their milk teeth come through completely rotten, usually', said one health visitor from Tyneside.

'There is still a belief that spoiling children is OK, and that usually involves sugary foods, before babies are even old enough to handle solids'.

Where sugar was recognised as a bad thing, ideas of what is 'healthy' were often to blame for bad practice.

One health visitor in Southampton told of regularly seeing babies with diet fizzy or soft drinks in their bottles.

In older children, a high proportion of health visitors interviewed mentioned the connection of some foods with play, such as with some major fast food outlets.

This casts healthy foods as dull and unfashionable, which makes its preparation unlikely when combined with the increased time taken to prepare.

Many health visitors were worried and daunted by the challenges of changing cyclical patterns of unhealthy eating they felt were embedded into families.

'In families of young mums, girls who don't know how to cook are now grandmas, and so there are no skills there to pass on, and no one to ask,' said a respondent from Suffolk.

The health visitors the Six O'Clock News spoke to blamed a lack of domestic science/cookery training for this knowledge gap, but saw few ways to address this at school level.

Instead, many spoke positively about setting up 'cook together' sessions for young mums where a meal is cooked for a small group and eaten together.

One health visitor from Hillingdon recalled the blank look on the faces of a few of the mothers' faces she spoke to about healthy eating.

'When I told them to boil up some carrots and potatoes and mash them up together they would nod, and then come up afterwards to ask what I meant,' she said.

This lack of school based education is also affecting older children, who are assumed to know how to look after themselves in their parents' absence.

One health visitor from Bexley recalled having to take a child into care who had been existing on frozen ready meals - still frozen, as her parents were working long hours and left her notes rather than communicating properly with her.

While most of the health visitors connected poor diet with low incomes, the health visitor noted that this was 'a classic case of middle class neglect'.

A lack of understanding about child development was also cited as a cause of unhealthy children.

A health visitor from Bexley revealed how children who refused food or were picky eaters were kept on milk as late as four or five, by which time they had to be temporarily removed from parental care because of developmental delays.

Even in the less extreme cases, anaemia was common where bottled milk was a major part of a child's diet.

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