Parents’ hectic lifestyles and a lack of time are being blamed for poor dietary habits among children.

Market analyst Datamonitor reveals that five to nine year-old children are suffering from a negative ‘spill-over effect’ from parental lifestyles. This is most pertinently demonstrated by the growing number of overweight and obese children. Some 30% of British five to nine year olds are overweight or obese, and Datamonitor expects this to rise to 36% by 2008.

“There are numerous factors contributing to this worrying phenomenon, ranging from children’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the Americanisation of the traditional Southern European diet, and a decline in family meal occasions. The increasingly hectic nature of parental lifestyles means that convenient, but often unhealthy food options have been chosen at the expense of more time consuming, nutritious alternatives” comments Daniel Bone, Datamonitor consumer markets analyst and author of the report.

Declining family meal times trigger obesity

Longer working hours, an increase in the number of working women, and a need for exhausted parents to have ‘quality time’ together means that more children, especially those in the UK and US, are losing a sense of the ‘family eating together’ concept. The fragmentation of family eating has resulted in a significant growth in ‘child only meals’ where child-specific foods or child-specific preferences such as chips and pizza are predominant.

Research1 has shown that just one-third eat as a family, a huge contrast compared to 82% of adults who said that when they were children they ate as a family everyday. This links to obesity, since research shows eating with the family leads to healthier eating habits for children. “Children who eat with their families are more likely to consume fruit and vegetables, and to eat less saturated fat, fried food and soda” comments Bone.

Growing ‘bedroom culture’ also to blame

‘Bedroom culture’, whereby children are increasingly becoming media junkies and spending time in their bedrooms is growing. Guilt of working parents has resulted in a significant increase in the level of indulgent purchases for a child – something which is often materialistically manifested in their bedrooms. TV sets are increasingly common in children’s bedrooms, and over half of the UK’s five to seven-year-olds now have a TV in their bedroom2.

“In many ways, one cannot blame parents for this phenomenon. Parental concerns for the safety of their children when out of the house unsupervised has contributed to a reluctant acceptance that the bedroom offers a safe haven and therefore peace of mind at a time when fears over children’s safety are at an all time high”, comments Bone.

Core mealtimes are giving way to snacking

The number of daily per head children’s snacking occasions is increasing, while the number of core mealtime occasions, that is breakfast, lunch and dinner, are in decline. “This is really quite worrying. Rising obesity levels have led to a trend in eating-related diseases for children, with more cases of high cholesterol and diabetes being reported in contemporary children than any other generation”, comments Bone.

Obesity has also been shown as a significant risk factor for coughing and wheezing in children”, he comments. The consequences are perpetual. Indeed, the UK government’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson recently stated that one million fewer obese people would lead to 15,000 fewer heart disease cases, 34,000 fewer people with Type 2 diabetes and 99,000 fewer with high blood pressure.

Hope in changing parental attitudes

Changing parental attitudes suggest there may be a backlash occurring amongst contemporary parents, who, in showing awareness and a desire to respond to the aforementioned problem, are demonstrating greater determination to ensure quality family time and are therefore spending time with their children. Another positive note stems from the fact that parents are fearful of harming their children by pandering to the snack and junk food culture, now more than ever, especially in light of growing accusations as to their role in contributing to childhood obesity.

Recent lawsuits, government reports, and ‘activists’ activities have made parents more sensitive to family nutrition and the new reality (and risks) of the early onset of diabetes and coronary heart disease among obese children. “There is evidence that parents are now placing greater importance on health as opposed to convenience when making purchase decisions. However, there is a major problem since parents have grown to distrust the food industry and feel that they are lacking vital information when making purchases,” comments Bone.

Marketers have a duty to change their approach and act responsibly

Households at risk of obesity reveal significant socio-economic effects, with research showing that, on average, a third of children from lower-income households are obese, compared to a fifth of children from higher-income households. Therefore, any attempts to bridge the knowledge gap must be specifically directed at such individuals.

“This point in time represents a critical period in which marketers must change their approach. Adopting an ethical and responsible ethos to all aspects of children’s marketing, ranging from developing healthy product offerings to promoting active and healthy lifestyles can have a positive impact on society. It makes sense from both a social and profit point of view”, comments Bone.

(1) The survey was produced in association with the RSA’s Focus on food campaign, which is supported by UK supermarket chain Waitrose. The survey was returned by 6,186 readers of whom, 4,328 were adults and 1,858 children.

(2) Mother & Baby Magazine

This information comes from a new Datamonitor report, Children’s consumption occasions and behaviors. Learn more about this report here.