How fast food is poisoning our children

By Anthea Gerrie, June 2, 2011
Feed your children a healthy diet when they are young and the habit will last a lifetime, say campaigners

Feed your children a healthy diet when they are young and the habit will last a lifetime, say campaigners

A slow food movement for babies may sound like a middle-class affectation. However, anyone who watched the recent BBC Three programme, Fast Food Baby, will realise we urgently need a formal feeding programme to get the next generation back on track. Research shows we have become a nation of takeaway junkies happy to indulge our toddlers in the quick comfort food we enjoy - and Jews are no exception. We may not bring home buckets of KFC, but fried fish is in our bloodstream.

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar are a recipe for heart disease, diabetes, even cancer, says family health expert Jane Imperato. BBC viewers may have seen her reading the riot act to a family with a lovely home and the wherewithal to buy good fresh food and cook it from scratch, but no inclination to improve their children's diet.

Imperato rightly suspected their chip-addicted toddler might be iron deficient - research has shown that this can slow down mental development. Add to this the fact that one in five children is overweight by age five and that 30,000 a year are admitted to hospital suffering from severe tooth decay caused by a sugar overload.

Enter the food evangelists: "We're passionate about engaging with good eating from the beginning of life to the end," says Catherine Gazzoli, head of Slow Food UK, who was taught to eat well as a young child by her Jewish grandmother.

"We know babies develop their taste buds early in life. It's a natural advantage which needs to be developed by introducing as wide a variety of foods as possible between six and 18 months.

"Studies have shown that babies weaned on variety will develop a healthier diet which will last a lifetime, so our objective is to support families to make informed choices."

Among the experts Slow Food turned to for help in developing a baby programme were nutritionist Jane Clarke and the doyenne of cooks, Prue Leith, who observes:  "A six-month-old baby will put anything in its mouth - bits of Lego, safety pins, even dirt. What a great opportunity to get him or her to put good food in there instead."

But it is not only babies and toddlers who need educating - parents and grandparents need to be made aware they could be doing the apple of their eye real harm by indulging them in too many treats. "We have developed a workshop for families, and I'd love to customise the programme for the Jewish community by bringing in culturally familiar foods - like, say, a piece of challah," says Gazzoli.

Being a right-on organisation, Slow Food will also preach the virtues of food that is ethically sourced and environmentally sound, and parents of teenage junk-food addicts will be glad to know it is not too late for their offspring. Gazzolis says: "We have had so many requests from students wanting to join our Slow Food on Campus initiative because they're fed up with eating rubbish, having finally realised it's making them sick. We visit them, help them talk to their caterers, introduce them to regional producers. And we look for faculty staff to support the programme so that when one batch of students leave, the work will carry on."

Leith has no doubt making an adventure out of tackling real food instead of just eating processed pap out of jars will reap rewards at the starting gate of life: "If babies are allowed to experiment with healthy food without a ton of sugar, salt and fat in it they will end up with a taste for beetroot, broccoli, pumpkin and fish," she says.

"But sadly, if they are given sweets, cakes and biscuits they will prefer them, and make their parents' life hell for years demanding them.

"Of course, children cannot be protected from junk food forever, but if they at least can be taught to like the good stuff, they will like it for life. And meals at home will become a pleasure, not a battleground."

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Last updated: 10:56am, June 2 2011