Healthy Families Series Part 1: Bringing up happy, healthy children

Despite more widespread access to health information than ever before, our nation’s health is much poorer than a generation ago. Children and adults live increasingly sedentary lifestyles, dominated by screens and disconnected from the outdoors and the natural world.

Our collective diet has deteriorated drastically. We are home-cooking less, eating fewer vegetables and consuming much higher amounts of sugary, high-fat and processed foods. The effects of these lifestyle changes are everywhere to be seen. Rates of obesity are sky-rocketing, with the average adult nearly 20 pounds heavier than 20 years ago. The associated health problems of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancers are all increasing, as are mental-health problems such as depression, anxiety, not to mention a lack of energy and fitness for life.

Most shocking are the increased rates of childhood obesity, placing the next generation on target for an epidemic of health problems at even higher rates than their parents have experienced.

Living in an unhealthy environment
Parents often receive the lion’s share of the blame for the changed lifestyles of their children, when this is usually unfair and does not take into account the challenging environment we are now all living in.

Family life is much more rushed than ever before, with many working parents facing long hours and long commutes, meaning there is less time than ever for family activities and to prepare home-cooked meals. Rushed families are eating out more, relying on food on the go, eating more takeaways etc – children and adults who are tired or stressed tend to eat more junk food, make poorer food choices and spend more time on screens.

In addition, children and families are bombarded with advertising and pressure to eat unhealthy foods. Fast food is cleverly marketed to children and comes with the promise of a free toy (How can carrots or broccoli compete?).

Even normal restaurants offer limited healthy choices to children and meals usually come in over-sized portions. In supermarkets, processed foods are often laced with sugar or other unhealthy ingredients and we are surrounded with special offers and promotions to get us to consume more and more.

The motive of the food industry which surrounds us is not to improve our children’s long-term health but simply to encourage them to consume more and more of their unhealthy products – the ideal for them is to get us and our children addicted in the long term. The ‘buy three for the price of two’ proves an irresistible ‘bargain’, when we did not even need to buy one in the first place!

The social environment in which children are brought up is not much better. When children go to parties or visit relatives or even attend normal activities, they are so frequently given treat foods and sugary drinks that these foods are now consumed by many on a daily basis and have become part of their normal diet.

This society in which we now live is such a significant factor in the obesity crisis that the editor of the leading medical journal The Lancet concluded that the “increasing weight of people worldwide is the result of a normal response by normal people to an abnormal environment”.

Bringing up healthy children
As a parent, you have be more vigilant than ever before to ensure your children have the best healthy start to their lives. You can’t let things drift, as your children will surely adopt the trends of increasing consumption of unhealthy food and increasing inactivity on screens. It is imperative to take action so as to establish good healthy habits that can protect your children against the pressures they are under.

The important thing is to question the consumerist society that surrounds us and to take a stand against it. While you can’t control the environment outside your home, you can take steps to change the environment within your home.

For example, you can make one or two powerful decisions such as:

  • Only having treat foods in the house once a week rather than every day
  • Banning sugary drinks and only having water or milk as drink options at meals
  • Having more home-cooked meals in a week
  • Taking time to involve your children in preparing a meal once a week
  • Sitting down with your children to eat and having time to chat over meals
  • Walking to school with your children rather than driving
  • Offering only healthy snacks such as carrot sticks or fruit during the week
  •  Increasing your children’s interest in vegetables by growing some in the garden
  • Planning the weekly shop in advance to avoid impulse buys
  • Going for a family walk in nature every weekend
  • Having screen-free times and places in the house (such as meal times and bedrooms)
  • Creating relaxed screen-free bedtime routines

The key is to make small steps and to build over time into good habits that make the difference in the long term. The new Start campaign supported by Safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland lists lots of simple and practical steps that any parents can make to improve their own and their children’s health and well-being.

 John Sharry is the co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity, and Adjunct Professor in the Dept of Psychology, UCD.
Originally published in The Irish Times Health Plus, 6th January 2019

To read other articles in this 6-part series on building a healthy family click here.
For information on John’s upcoming talks and courses for parents, click here.