Our children are our future. Indeed, they are our gifts, little presents that we want to take care of. With national statistics showing that one in three children is overweight or obese and therefore at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer, our children need our help in creating an environment that is healthier Supports eating habits, greater physical activity, and greater opportunity to live their best lives.
As it currently stands, our children’s surroundings (everything outside of our children, including where they live, how they travel, what is available to eat, opportunities to play and entertain) can encourage weight gain. Our culture has become one that allows for excessive energy intake (often through fast foods and sugary drinks) and a sedentary lifestyle (which means that the body uses a minimum of energy every day). This can lead to extra energy that the body normally stores as fat. The body needs fat for some processes, but extra fat makes some processes inefficient and makes the body susceptible to disease.
If we take a closer look at the role of diet, much of what we eat today is processed and packaged to varying degrees. Recent evidence shows that a large proportion of the prepackaged foods and beverages available locally have negative food properties. In fact, they are highly processed and contain added sugars, sodium and / or saturated and trans fats that exceed the recommended thresholds. There is overwhelming evidence that these negative food properties increase your risk of developing non-communicable diseases. It is not enough simply to tell children to eat right. We need to help them make the healthier and easier choices by creating an environment that makes it easier for them to do so.
Researchers have confirmed that food advertising and marketing on the front of food labels contribute to positive attitudes, preferences, and product consumption. This makes sense as this is the point of marketing. When you have a product that you believe in, or at least one that could be profitable, the more people you tell about it and the more you show how it fits into someone’s dream life, the more sales will go up. This is what marketers do. However, a survey on our ads shows that many grocers do not do this responsibly.
Did you know that younger children may lack the ability to decipher the intent of marketing and therefore make an informed decision about a product’s suitability? Studies show that before the age of eight, most children cannot fully understand advertising, and therefore may not be able to tell that a product looks desirable but may not be a good choice for them. Research also shows that the ability to monitor and control thoughts, emotions, and actions is fully developed in adolescence. Therefore, when promoting children (under 18 years of age under Jamaican law), marketers should be encouraged to consider age-specific developmental milestones so that younger children’s inability to properly control thoughts, emotions and actions is not abused.
There is no problem with marketing, but responsible marketing is required. Therefore, the marketing of unhealthy foods directed to children through all communication channels including food labels, television and in schools should be regulated. Our government should be quick to adopt and enforce guidelines for the marketing of food and beverages, which could include:
• Define marketing for children to include all communication channels that can be used to target children.
• No direct marketing to children in schools (or an age-defined limit).
• Only products that meet certain category-based criteria for the nutritional profile may contain health claims (eg 100% vitamin C, “good for bones and teeth”).
• Food companies must ensure that all employees involved in the marketing or sale of products are made aware of the guidelines or are penalized by the government.
Our school nutrition policy should also include marketing-related aspects:
• Prohibited products may not be sold, marketed or made available to children in the school environment.
• Food and drink donations or school fundraisers should follow recommended dietary guidelines.
• Product brands and incentives such as company logos, discounts, or promotions should not be included in donated products that are accessible to children (e.g. exercise books, clothing, equipment, posters, meals), even if donations are of a charitable nature.
It is often said that we make great laws and do not enforce them well. However, at the rate at which our children’s collective health is deteriorating, the laws governing our children’s health must have teeth and even incisors. An appropriate government agency should play a regulatory role and food marketing compliance should be monitored. Violations should result in appropriate penalties.
We must be serious about reversing child obesity trends and safeguarding the health of future generations. Now is the perfect time to reassess our nutritional environment to support our health, and especially now as our health affects our susceptibility to COVID-19. All Jamaicans must look for ways to help our country be the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business – Jamaica, a Caribbean island where healthy choice is the easy choice .
Annalee Gray Brown is a nutritionist and research fellow at the Caribbean Institute of Health Research at the University of the West Indies, Kingston. Send feedback to [email protected].