Parents have only limited influence on their children's eating behavior
Many children and adolescents suffer from overweight or obesity - a problem that is common across Europe. Whether children have an increased risk of getting fat is closely related to the social circumstances in which they grow up. But an international study shows that there are other influencing factors that even health-conscious parents can hardly influence. This includes above all advertising and access to places in which the adolescents can move freely. To improve children's health, families should therefore be actively supported by the governments of Europe, according to the central message of the partners of the I. Family study.
Child obesity is a Europe-wide problem
Whether Nutella for breakfast, fries and sausages for lunch or chocolate bars for the small hunger in between: Many children in Europe consume far too much sugar and fat every day and as a result suffer from overweight and obesity. But what are the causes of this "overweight epidemic"? What factors determine which foods young people choose? These questions were the focus of the large-scale international “I. Family Study”, which was presented on February 9 in Brussels.
Scientists assess the health of thousands of children
For the project, over 16,000 children in eight European countries (Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Hungary, Cyprus) were accompanied by a team of international scientists over five years. Coordinated by the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology - BIPS GmbH and the University of Bremen, the health status, nutritional behavior and the influence of friends and family on the children were examined.
The central result: The families alone could not solve the overweight problem. Rather, politics must be held accountable and help families to improve their children's health and counteract obesity, according to the press release from the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology - BIPS GmbH.
Share particularly high in southern Italy
According to the study, social living conditions (job, income, formal education, place of residence etc.) have a major impact on the development of overweight. Accordingly, over the years it has been found that about twice as many children with low or medium socio-economic status became overweight as they grew up as peers with high socio-economic status.
This applies to all countries, but the proportions of children with overweight or obesity vary significantly across Europe: While in southern Italy around 40% of children between 2 and 10 years are affected, the proportion in Belgium is less than 10% in same age group.
"Our results clearly show that children from disadvantaged families are more often overweight than children from wealthier families," explains study coordinator Wolfgang Ahrens from BIPS. "Politics must be active here and support these families."
Advertising has an immense influence on eating behavior
It is obvious that an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise quickly lead to obesity. However, the experts recognized that even for children who eat healthy and exercise, there are risk factors for overweight, over which the parents have little or no influence.
"Another area in which politics has to act is advertising for unhealthy 'junk food' aimed at children as consumers. This advertising - for example on television - is very widespread and has a great impact on children, so that it is difficult even for very health-conscious parents to restrict the consumption of these foods, ”said Wolfgang Ahrens.
Education also plays a central role here. According to Ahrens, less educated parents would have a less critical opinion of TV advertising. "Their children are exposed to the influences of advertising without protection," the expert told the news agency "dpa". The study was able to show that the children's eating behavior is strongly influenced by the product presentations. Accordingly, after watching TV advertising, they consumed sugared drinks more often - regardless of the norms of the parents.
Manufacturers need to be regulated more
Accordingly, according to Ahlers, it is necessary that advertising specifically addressed to children be more strictly regulated. Because the current voluntary self-restriction of the food industry in child marketing has no effect - a sad fact, which foodwatch consumer advocates had already pointed out in 2015. At that time, an extensive study of children's food had shown that the manufacturers still market almost exclusively unhealthy products to children.
School meals need to be healthier
Politicians must also ensure that adolescents receive healthy food at school. Helmut Heseker, nutritionist at the University of Paderborn, criticizes in an interview with the news agency that instead of quality, too much emphasis is placed on inexpensive catering. The requirements of the German Society for Nutrition (DGE) were often not met. "A lot of awareness is still needed, in politics, with parents and school authorities," says Heseker.
Still too many overweight children
The DGE had only reported a few days ago that the proportion of overweight or obese children had dropped in the school enrollment phase - but many adolescents in this country are still far too fat. Depending on the federal state, the proportion of overweight children is currently between 8.2% and 12%, of which between 2.8% and 5.3% were obese. In a European comparison, Germany occupies a place in the middle.
Allow access to open spaces
Another important point, according to the study, concerns children's activity. "A third important result of I.Family is the realization that good access to open spaces, parks, walking and cycling paths means that children are more physically active," said Wolfgang Ahrens, according to the BIPS announcement. According to the expert, city planners and politicians could “[…] directly influence children's health if they offer them better opportunities to move around them.”
Orientation towards friends is becoming more important
Parents can of course shape their children's eating habits to a certain extent by acting as role models and leading a healthy lifestyle. But the influence already decreases significantly during school time, as the adolescents are increasingly orienting themselves towards friends.
According to the study, teenagers are more likely to eat unhealthy food if friends do the same. The same applies to physical activity. Therefore, the governments of Europe would have to actively help families improve their children's health. "Families alone cannot perform this difficult task," said the study partners. (No)