If you walk into any classroom and ask the students what junk food is, they will immediately be able to reel off lists of items they consider to be junk. So if they know what junk food is, why are children – and adults – still eating it?
Junk foods are energy-dense (as opposed to nutrient-dense) and this energy comes from fat and sugar (many of these foods are also laden with salt). The reasons why people continue to consume junk food, even when they know it is less than ideal, is a point of great speculation. The drives behind consumption go far beyond energy demand or need. In most cases, the energy imbalance that results from eating the food is not even considered – and therein lies the biggest concern with children and teenagers and their habits relating to junk food.
If we take the term literally, junk food is food that does not hold any real nutritional value in the diet. It is food that contains significant amounts of fat, sugar and salt with little other nutritional benefit. Junk food is often called ‘fast food’ because it is fast to consume due to its lack of fibre and high amount of fat.
Junk food is commonly consumed out of habit, desire, taste, convenience and peer pressure, and sometimes a combination of all of these factors. Whatever the motive, it is certainly consumed without benefit to the consumer. We need to make a connection in students’ minds between what they put in their body and what effect it has on their health. And we need to stop being afraid to discuss it.
As with all topics in health, the issue of junk food needs to be discussed with professionalism by showing empathy, but at the same time dealing with facts to reconnect children and teenagers with the potential consequences. It is not about scaremongering, it is about discussing the issue openly and honestly – and fostering the potential for students of all ages to be well informed and give them the opportunity to develop into healthy adults. Schools must ensure that the policies and procedures that guide their communities provide the opportunity for all students to make healthy choices.
Strategies To Get Children Thinking
Below are some strategies and activities to get your students thinking about junk food and the connection it has to their health and wellbeing.
Depending on the age of the students and their level of understanding, it is useful to begin by brainstorming what junk food is and developing a clear understanding of why some foods are indeed labeled as ‘junk’. For example, if you search Wikipedia, ‘junk’ is defined as “Waste, any undesired thing or substance”. Definitions of this nature are a good place to begin when you are trying to formulate a clear understanding in your students’ minds. Once a clear definition and understanding has been established, challenge them to think about why they would put waste into their body. To illustrate this concept, use role models – such sporting role models – who have had very specific goals that they have achieved throughout their careers. Ask your students if they believe that these role models would have achieved these goals by putting junk in their bodies.
The ‘Sometimes Foods’ Versus ‘Everyday Foods’ Discussion
This discussion does not suggest that a child’s favourite treat should banned for life but it does suggest that it should only be consumed occasionally. You can use the national health campaign, Swap It, Don’t Stop It (www. swapit.gov.au) to further elaborate on this discussion. The campaign website has a number of good suggestions about how people can ‘swap’ their choices and change their diets. Lead this discussion to create a level of understanding around why and how we should change lifestyle behaviours in relation to food choices.
Understanding The Desire To Eat Junk Food And Finding Alternatives
If a child’s reason for eating junk food is its flavour, begin by asking students to think up (and test) some recipes that are just as tasty but tick the box of being an everyday food. For example, these might include chips that they make themselves or sweets made with less sugar and more fruit. If their driving force is convenience, then promote a strategy that encourages them to eat regular mini-meals, which are small meals that can be eaten on the run. These include rice crackers, fresh fruit, cheese and biscuits, milk drinks, tubs of yoghurt, dried fruit bags, air dried popcorn, veggie muffins, homemade healthy Anzac biscuits, and ready-made meals that just require heating, such as soups, tuna and baked beans.
Changing The Approach
Adults are forever trying to convince children not to eat junk food because of what it does to a growing body. Excess sugar, fat and salt will have detrimental effects on a child’s health, growth and development. The direct impacts of excess salt are dehydration and high blood pressure (hypertension); obesity has little to do with physical appearance and more with health and longevity. Nowadays, many ‘lifestyle diseases’ that have historically been experienced in middle age are now becoming adolescent diseases.
Changing the approach could make all the difference. For instance, rather than telling students to stop eating junk food all together, inspire them to want to be healthy and feel great. Students should understand that they can have those foods, just not every day.
You can also be graphic – do not underestimate how powerful visuals can be. Exposing children to pictures of organs that have been infiltrated with fat, or of the complications of Type 2 diabetes or heart disease, will be confronting but it is a useful part of a larger strategy.
You should also try the simple question-and-answer approach. Simply ask students why they should drink water or plain milk instead of juice or soft drink. The answer is that water and milk will address the body’s need for hydration – mention the correlation between that and the body being composed of 70 % water – and calcium needs without adding unnecessary kilojoules of energy. Ensure that your students know what the answer is, and most importantly, the reasons behind it.
Here is an example of a practical lesson that is simple but very effective. Ask your students how many teaspoons of sugar are in a can of soft drink (some soft drinks have up to 10). Add the number of teaspoons of sugar they decide is in a can of soft drink to a glass of water. By visualising the amount of sugar in a soft drink, students will come to understand why that amount is too much.
There is one exception to the practice of sometimes foods and that is energy drinks. These drinks have no place in a child’s diet or in a growing body. They should not be considered sometimes foods as they are not safe for children – the warnings on the can even suggest so. Caffeine, sugar and the energy boosting additives are not designed to be handled by a developing metabolism. These drinks are often dressed up as a can of soft drink (which is indeed a sometimes food), however, it is really the same as a double or triple shot of espresso coffee, which you would not offer to a growing child.
Teachers and parents must focus on teaching children why junk food is bad for them rather than simply telling them not to eat it without explanation or reason. The aim is to inspire children and teenagers to want to lead a healthy lifestyle that involves them making their own healthy food choices. Children must understand the foundations of healthy eating and the positive effect that it will have on their life, as well as the activities and journeys they pursue in the years to come.
Melanie Blackhall (BHM MPhil RNutr) is a registered nutritionist who has worked across the country in the area of child nutrition and health. Her research and subsequent publications are on nutrition and cardiovascular disease. Melanie currently lectures at the University of Tasmania. Her passion for developing strategies for real people led Melanie to co-found Strive for Life, a company focused on creating healthier lives, as well as Strive Food, which is a business that provides nutritious dehydrated meals for outdoor adventures. Melanie can be contacted on email@example.com.